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

Friday, September 19, 2008

What Impact Will Gilbert Arenas' Latest Surgery Have on the Wizards?

Gilbert Arenas will miss the start of the 2008-09 season after having his left knee operated on to clean out what Arenas called "floating debris." This is the third time he has had left knee surgery since April 2007. In typical Arenas fashion, Arenas disclosed the story on his own before the team could issue a press release and he said that he will not return until at least December, while the team prudently declined to set a specific timetable. It is terrible to see anyone hurt and not able to fully perform up to his capabilities and I'm sure that everyone who follows the NBA wishes Arenas a full and speedy recovery.

From a basketball analysis standpoint, how much will the Wizards really miss Arenas? Let's start by looking at Arenas at his best and work from there. Arenas' 60 point game versus the Lakers on December 19, 2006 was historically significant; only 20 NBA players have surpassed the 60 point mark a total of 59 times, with Wilt Chamberlain claiming the lion's share of that total (32), followed by Michael Jordan (four), Kobe Bryant (four) and Elgin Baylor (three), the only "non-Wilt" players to have multiple 60 point games in the regular season. However, the second part of the story of Arenas' performance does not get told often enough. After the game, Bryant said, "You tip your hat and say, 'See you next time.' First of all, he shot 27 free throws. We as a team shot 30. Think about that. But him individually, it's funny. He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they're just terrible shots. Awful. You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. He made some big ones, but I'll be ready next time." In the rematch on February 3, 2007, Bryant outplayed Arenas as the Lakers won, 118-102; as I wrote at that time, "Some 20 Second Timeout readers asserted that since Arenas shoots a good three point percentage that his low overall field goal percentage and high number of three point attempts should be excused but I responded that if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up 8 or 9 three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success. Look again at the numbers: some of the categories are close, but Bryant outdid Arenas in every single area and his team won by 16 points in regulation. So, in the two Lakers-Wizards games this season, the Wizards won once in overtime when Arenas hit a much higher percentage of his shots than normal (and shot a very high number of free throws) and then got routed at home when Arenas shot 3-15 from three point range."

Arenas is an erratic gunner who has a me-first agenda that gets in the way of team success, which is why the Wizards do not suffer noticeably in his absence even though he is easily the most publicized player on the team. As I pointed out near the end of last season, during the past two seasons, the Wizards have done better with Caron Butler in the lineup sans Arenas than with Arenas in the lineup sans Butler. Last season, the Wizards started out 3-5 with Arenas before Arenas was sidelined by a knee injury. They went 35-31 without Arenas before he returned to play five late season games; the Wizards went 3-2 in those games and 2-1 in three late season games that he sat out. Overall, the Wizards were 37-32 without Arenas last year and 6-7 with him. Obviously, Arenas was not at full strength last season and 13 games is a small sample size--but 69 games is not a small sample size and the Wizards' winning percentage without Arenas in 2007-08 (.536) is virtually identical to the 39-34 mark (.534) that the Wizards posted in 2006-07 before Arenas and Butler were felled by season-ending injuries. In 2007-08, the Wizards essentially replaced Arenas with career journeyman Antonio Daniels--a solid pro who has played with five teams in his 11 year NBA career--and not only did not miss a beat, they actually performed better. It is important to remember that Butler missed 24 games last season; the Wizards went 33-25 (.569) with Butler and 10-14 (.417) without him--and five of the losses with Butler also came with Arenas in the starting lineup. Washington's best starting lineup last season (by winning percentage, with a minimum of 10 games) was Butler, Daniels, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson. That group went 23-16 (.590) for nearly half a season without Arenas, which projects to a 48-34 record, a mark that would exceed the Wizards' best season since acquiring Arenas.

You may recall that during the 2006-07 season Arenas was touted in some quarters as an MVP candidate. Time--and the winning percentages listed above--clearly demonstrate what any objective person looking at Arenas' skill set and attitude has understood all along: Arenas is an All-Star level player, not an MVP level player or a franchise player worthy of the sixth largest contract since the signing of the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement (the five larger deals were signed by Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal, Chris Webber and Rashard Lewis).

I am not saying this now merely because Arenas is hurt yet again; when the Wizards initially signed Arenas to a six year, $111 million deal this summer I said that Washington had "vastly overpaid"--and that evaluation was based purely on the skill set and attitude of a healthy Arenas, not even factoring in his recent injury history. Obviously, the questionable health of his left knee should have made the Wizards even more cautious about guaranteeing so much money to Arenas.

The bottom line is that barring an injury to Butler or a slew of injuries that wipe out the team's depth, the Wizards have a good shot of being above .500 whenever Arenas returns.

After the 2008 playoffs, I did a post titled The 2008 Playoffs: Where the Revival of the NBA's Two Flagship Franchises Happened, offering some thoughts about each of the 16 playoff participants. I stand by what I said about Arenas and the Wizards at that time:

The Washington Wizards will never make it further than the second round of the playoffs as long as Gilbert Arenas is their primary offensive option. Period. I don't care how certain people crunch various numbers to "prove" his value and I don't care that the Wizards were once in first place in the East for a minute and a half almost two years ago when Arenas had some high scoring games. Arenas is a player who is primarily focused on scoring points and on settling old scores (being a second round pick, being left off of Team USA, etc.). It seems highly unlikely that he will ever change his mindset and that makes him ill equipped to lead a legit contender.

All I can add to that now is that I sincerely hope that Arenas one day is healthy enough to prove me right--or wrong.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:41 AM

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Pete Maravich: The Authorized Biography of Pistol Pete" is Now Available in Paperback

In 2006, the hardback edition of Maravich by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill was published by Sport Classic Books. Maravich's widow Jackie worked with the authors, providing what they called "unfettered access to the Maravich family archive of clippings, films, letters, calendars, diaries and photographs." A year later, without the benefit of such access, Mark Kriegel wrote a Maravich biography titled Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich. The paperback version of Federman and Terrill's book has recently been published by Tyndale; it has been retitled Pete Maravich: The Authorized Biography of Pistol Pete, perhaps to distinguish itself even more clearly from Kriegel's unauthorized book.

Even though the title is different, the paperback edition is largely unchanged from the hardback edition. The most obvious difference is that the newer book has a foreword by Dr. James C. Dobson, who had been playing pickup basketball with Maravich moments before the 40 year old Hall of Famer collapsed and died (Maravich had a congenital heart defect that had never been detected, so it is amazing that he played four years of college ball and 10 years of professional ball).

However, there are a few subtle changes to the text that I very much appreciate and want to publicly acknowledge. As I explained in a November 9, 2006 post titled Dr. J and Pistol Pete on the Same Team, the hardback edition of Maravich lifted a couple Julius Erving quotes from one of my articles without providing proper attribution. When I brought this to Mr. Federman's attention, he apologized and assured me that all future editions of the book would contain the proper attribution. I am delighted to report that this is indeed the case; the paperback edition clearly indicates that the Erving quotes came from my interview with Dr. J. My name was also added to the "Acknowledgments" section at the end of the book.

Sometimes people say that they will right a wrong but they never do, so I appreciate that Mr. Federman was true to his word.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kobe Bryant on Rome is Burning: "There is No Greater Sense of Enjoyment You Get Than Representing Your Country"

Kobe Bryant was Jim Rome's in studio guest on the Tuesday episode of "Rome is Burning." Here are most of the questions and answers from that interview:

Rome: "You're an MVP, you're a three-time World Champion and now you've got the hardware--how does this one (Olympic gold medal) rank compared to everything you've accomplished?"

Bryant: "This is right at the top because we always talked about it on the team: the sense of honor that you have playing for your country can't be matched. In the NBA you are playing for a particular brand or a particular region but when you are playing for USA you are playing for the sum total of it all and that's pretty cool."

Rome: "Seriously--better than an NBA title?"

Bryant: "Better. There's no greater sense of enjoyment you get than representing your country. Plus, it's cool when you go to the Opening Ceremonies or you hear the Star Spangled Banner being played and you look up in the crowd and you see everybody waving USA flags; they could be Celtics fans, they could be Pistons fans but I think that it is so neat for them--for everybody--to just bond together for one common goal. That's pretty awesome."

Rome: "So much went into this. (Team USA Managing Director) Jerry Colangelo said we're going to pick the right team and guys are going to make a three year commitment. We can't have happen what happened in Athens. So you get there and you roll right through the entire tournament and then you get Spain in the championship game and they come back on you. They cut that lead to two. At that point, what were you thinking?"

Bryant (big smile): "This is fun. This is fun. That's the thing I remember thinking."

Rome: "Really? Because I was thinking something bad is going to happen."

Bryant (laughs): "No, no, no. We talked about that moment when we would get tested and my point was, this is what we do. This is the most fun. We have a two point lead here, we called a timeout because we needed one and we have to regroup--now let's get back at it. Let's make it happen."

Rome: "Coach K called a timeout and he pulled you aside and he had something to tell you specifically. What was his message to you?"

Bryant: "He wanted me to get after it and to assert myself--not necessarily to score the ball but to make plays and I was able to do that and read the defense. I saw some gaps and some things that I could take advantage of."

Rome: "The question coming in was if you are at the end of the game, who gets that last shot? Who does the ball go to? Should I assume that because of that conversation in the final analysis you were the guy? He wanted you to take care of it."

Bryant (laughs): "Yeah, it kind of fell into my hands in terms of being able to make the decisions down the stretch and because I am probably the one who has the the most experience on the team in those pressure situations. I made a couple plays, kicked it to a couple of our guys and they made some big shots."

Rome: "Ultimately, how do you divvy up leadership? If you have a room full of alpha dogs, guys that everybody is used to looking to and you're all in the same room, how do you divvy that up and who do the guys follow?"

Bryant: "You know what, it just kind of happens, to be honest with you. Jason (Kidd) was there. He's been a tremendous leader for a while. I forget what his record was in Olympic basketball and international competition but it was something crazy like 48-0. So he's been there before. LeBron's leadership is more vocal. He's constantly going all the time and his motor is never off. Myself, I'm more of a quiet guy but I get things done just by leading by example and the level of intensity that I play with."

Rome: "There was speculation that after you got the gold, OK, it's time to get the surgery and it looked like you were set to do it and then you decided not to get surgery on your pinkie. How come?"

Bryant: "Originally, when we talked about it during the season, we thought that it would be a three or four week process of recovery. We said that the perfect window is after the Olympics, get it done, miss maybe a week of camp and then get back at it. But after further due diligence we found out that it is six weeks minimum just to get the hand back to moving and touching the ball and things like that. So, total it would be a 12 week process and I can't miss that much."

Rome: "Can you make it worse by playing with it?"

Bryant: "No, there's nothing worse that can happen. It's gone; it's broke. I'm going to have to have surgery to fix it eventually but right now it's just not that time."

Rome: "But what if you do have to shut it down? What if you are not there when they need you the most?"

Bryant: "That's always a risk that you have to assess. My feeling on that is that I am pretty conscious when I play the game of how to protect myself, particularly my hand. I feel like that is something I can manage."

Rome: "You go and win the gold medal. Does that take away the sting of how the Finals ended?"

Bryant: "Yeah, it does but it makes you want to win a championship that much more because you see the champagne bottles and all this other stuff in the locker room--jumping up and down, singing and having a good time. You want to have that same feeling again. We just had an opportunity, we didn't make the most of it but we still gained valuable experience."

Rome: "Do you find yourself going back to game four? Obviously, you have 12 other championship caliber guys that are on that same team--five on the floor, the rest on the bench. They weren't going to give in. But, you're at home, game four, 24 point lead, how are you not able to choke them out in your house in a game that is that important?"

Bryant: "I think that in a series the better team is always going to win, no matter what. That's something that I've always learned. I feel like we were a great team but they were better and they were better in areas that we need to improve in: defense and rebounding. That gets it done every single time. We were a good defensive team--inconsistent, but we were good. This season we are going to be much better in those areas."

Rome: "Defensively, they were good. I mean, watching you the entire year when you won the MVP, it just seemed like when you wanted to, when you chose to, you could take over at any time. Personally, I kept waiting for that to happen in the NBA Finals and it never really happened. What did the Celtics do to make things so challenging for you?"

Bryant: "They had a rule, which is to put two, three, four guys between me and the basket at all times. That is the kind of defense that we saw. They were willing to give my teammates open looks, which is a defense that we have seen before but I think that the thing that really hurt us is those moments or stretches when we were scoreless and they came down to the other end and knocked down two, three, four threes and all of a sudden a four point game is a 12, 15 point game and it is tough to recover from that."

Rome: "They were so physical, too. Probably, you guys need to get more physical--or, is that not the case and do you just need to get Andrew Bynum back?"

Bryant: "We'll get stronger. I think those are areas that we know we have to get better at. I think having Andrew in the middle will help tremendously. They got a lot of layups. On top of hitting wide open threes, they were driving down the lane and getting finger rolls. I think having him in the lane is going to help us out a lot."

After a commercial break, Rome did one more bonus segment with Bryant.

Rome: "Kobe, you turned 30 recently and you are now 13 years in. Is your best basketball still ahead of you or maybe, at 30 with 13 years in, have you already played it?"

Bryant (wry smile): "No, I think it's still ahead of me. I hear that a lot but it makes me want to drive that much harder. Obviously, you have to be a little smarter with your training. It's all part of challenge."

Rome: "Training is going to factor into it but now do you pick your spots during games when before you just went?"

Bryant: "Oh, yeah, but that just comes with experience. Even when I was 22, 23 years old, I tried to pick my spots but as you get older you start to learn more about the game. You figure things out more. Things just come a little bit more easily than they did at that age."

Rome: "So what is your relationship with Phil Jackson like right now? There have been some ups and some downs."

Bryant: "It's incredible. We actually communicated pretty often during the Olympics, with him just saying good luck and being supportive."

Rome: "Kobe, how did you make that right? He wrote some things in that book that were not very favorable. How did you see clear of that to get back on the same page with him?"

Bryant: "Who am I to judge? Everybody makes mistakes. When he called me and said that I want to come back and coach and help you turn this thing around I'm not going to sit there and hold it over his head. I'm going to look at it as water under the bridge and move on and that's what we were able to do."

Rome: "Would you approach your relationship with Shaq the same way?"

Bryant: "I always have. In fact, before the latest incident we actually talked on the phone. He actually called me and said that he was proud of the way that I was playing and how I was playing in the playoffs and that sort of thing. I've always approached relationships that way, you forgive and you just move on and give people a second chance."

Rome: "What do you make of that? Was he being insincere when he picked up the phone and called you and said I'm proud of you and then laid down that rap?"

Bryant: "I don't know. I try to focus on things that I can control. At that time, I had the gold medal to focus on. Now it's about trying to get a championship. So I try to keep my eyes on the prize and not worry too much about what is going on over here."

The next few questions concerned the possibility that a foreign team would put together a big enough deal to tempt a top NBA player to move overseas. Bryant kept his options open, saying that it "is not out of the realm of possibility" that this could happen. The interview concluded with this question:

Rome: "Have you thought about how this whole thing ends? When it's all said and done, the final chapter of your career?"

Bryant: "I've thought about it before. I'd love to be remembered as a guy who just loved to play the game, who worked extremely hard at it and won. If people can say that about me I'll be very happy."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM

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Monday, September 15, 2008

"This League is More Than What You See at Seven O' Clock"

Ryan McNeill of HoopsAddict.com has just written a very interesting article about Andrea Bargnani's development curve. Extensively quoting Toronto Coach Sam Mitchell, McNeill brings out a lot of important concepts that not only apply to Bargnani but also to the NBA in general and to aspects of the game that casual fans don't know about--largely because the mainstream media does a poor job of focusing on these things, choosing instead to foment controversy or hype up certain players. Bargnani is a young player who is not only adjusting to a new country but he is also adjusting to the numerous stylistic differences between the FIBA game and the NBA game. As Mitchell put it near the end of last season, "“He’s a young player. You all have no idea how hard it is to play in this league. You’ve got to understand something--Andrea hasn’t been in the league long enough to understand how this league is. The ups and downs. The ebbs and flow of the league. He doesn’t understand he’ll have bad stretches because he hasn’t experienced it before.”

McNeill quotes Mitchell summarizing the whole issue perfectly: "This league is more than what you see at seven o’clock." The frustration inherent in that quote--and the communication gap that it defines--immediately reminded me of something that Hubie Brown told me:

From day one I try to present the (NBA) game to the people to show that this is a game played a foot above the rim, at the top of the box above the rim--because we have the greatest athletes playing at this level (the NBA). Things are erased because of athleticism, shot blocking, defensive quickness and rotation. I want you to understand that. This is not college basketball. This is not FIBA basketball. This is a game called roller ball. It’s played by the greatest athletes and it’s played under complete duress and duress is the key. Now, are you a man enough to play at this level and, more important, to stay at this level? You’ve got to be a tough person and you must have a lot of courage. Well, I want to present this game. I don’t want everybody out there thinking that these guys just met at 6:00 and are playing at 7:30. Why do people say that football and baseball are so strategic and that they’re more strategic than basketball? That’s a naive person talking. They have no idea what goes into the continuities presented by the great teams in basketball.

Near the end of his post, McNeill refers to something that I have often tried to emphasize during my coverage of NBA games:

After attending almost all of the Raptors home games last season, something I never tired of watching was coaches from around the league working with players before games. Players were constantly learning, adding new tweaks to their games and growing as players. While most fans file into arenas anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before the opening tip, it’s amazing to see the kind of work players put in nearly two hours before the game starts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:12 PM

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Michael Jordan and Tex Winter Discuss the MJ-Kobe Comparisons

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2008-09 is on the market now. If it is not sold in a bookstore near you, you can order a copy online--choosing from among nine different regional covers--at the Lindy's website.

For this year's edition, I wrote the Sacramento Kings preview for the third year in a row, the Phoenix Suns preview for the second year in a row and I wrote the Cleveland Cavaliers preview for the first time, ending my run of writing three straight previews about the Denver Nuggets. For the sidebar stories that accompany each preview, I wrote about Ron Artest, Shaquille O'Neal and the Cavaliers' underrated defense respectively.

Editor Roland Lazenby contributed a very interesting story about Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant titled, "In Michael's Image." Lazenby has long had a very close working relationship with Tex Winter, the inventor of the Triangle Offense who coached both Jordan (with the Chicago Bulls) and Bryant (with the Lakers, for whom Winter is still a consultant). Lazenby's excellent article is well worth reading. Here are a few bullet points:

1) Jerry West, the man who originally drafted Bryant, believes that Bryant's greatness is not appreciated or understood by the general public: "The people who write and say things, they know nothing about him," West said during the 2008 NBA Finals, according to Lazenby.

2) Lazenby indicated that the Jordan-Bryant comparisons do not bother Jordan as much as they bother others: "Frankly, Jordan doesn't see what all the big fuss is about. After all, human behavior is mimetic. That's what humans do. They copy and ape another." Jordan acknowledged that Bryant has patterned aspects of his game after Jordan's but does not see this as a bad thing at all: "But how many people lighted the path for me? That's the evoluation of basketball. There's no way I could have played the way I played if I didn't watch David Thompson and guys prior to me. There's no way Kobe could have played the way he's played without watching me play. So, you know, that's the evolution of basketball. You cannot change that."

3) Lazenby added, "In conversation, it becomes quickly obvious that Jordan respects Bryant, without even a hint of condescension. After all, Jordan respects anyone who does the work, who has the mental toughness, to climb the heights. Bryant's done the work and displayed the toughness, he says."

4) Winter has repeatedly emphasized that Scottie Pippen's role in the success of the Bulls cannot be overestimated; on the flip side, Winter and West both criticized the lack of mental toughness of Bryant's current supporting cast, a weakness that became glaringly apparent during the 2008 NBA Finals. "The Lakers just are not mentally tough," West said point blank, while Winter agreed and added, "We had some tough guys in Chicago, guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr who could hit those open shots."

In a sidebar piece, Lazenby pointed out that several years ago the Lakers coaching staff--which of course contained several people who also coached Jordan in Chicago--"concluded Bryant and Jordan were much alike, almost eerie, in fact, when it came to the alpha male qualities of their competitive natures. Kobe and Michael were ruthless when it came to winning, everyone agreed. And their skills were similar. Except Michael's hands were larger. The major difference between the two came with college experience. Jordan had played in a basketball system for Dean Smith at North Carolina, thus he was better prepared to play within a team concept."

In a statement that may surprise a lot of people, Winter told Lazenby that he doubted that Jordan would have been a good fit playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal. It will probably surprise Bryant's critics even more to learn that Winter said that his critical examination of game tape shows that Bryant's shot selection is quite good: "Actually, for the most part, he's not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he's taken go in." After all, while some aspects of shot selection are universal--running the shot clock down at the end of the quarter to get the last shot and deny the other team a scoring opportunity--other aspects of shot selection depend on the skill set of the player who is taking the shot (and the skill sets of the players who he would be passing to if he did not shoot).

Winter concluded, "I tend to think how very much they're alike. They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don't know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:21 AM

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