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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sporting News NBA Survey, Revisiting Kobe Bryant's Evolution

The October 27, 2008 issue of the Sporting News contains the results of a survey of 21 former NBA players*. Tim Duncan and Steve Nash tied for first place (four votes each) in the category of "The current player I wish I could have played with is," finishing just ahead of Kobe Bryant (3.5) and Chris Paul (3). Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Shaquille O'Neal received the remaining votes. Gregg Popovich got the nod as the NBA's best coach (7.5 votes), beating out Phil Jackson (4.5) and Doc Rivers (4). The ex-players--like most observers--expect either Boston (9) or the Lakers (6) to win the title. The Spurs finished third (2.5), with the 76ers, Hornets and Pacers (!) receiving the remaining votes; I can see picking the Pacers as a dark horse to make the playoffs but anyone who thinks that they are going to win the title this year seriously needs to be drug tested.

Who are five can't miss future Hall of Famers currently active in the league today? Kobe Bryant received 20 votes, with only Rod Strickland dissenting (he chose Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal). Duncan received 18 votes, followed by Garnett (15), James (13), O'Neal (11), Nash (7) and Iverson (6). Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Don Nelson, Chris Paul, Jerry Sloan, Amare Stoudemire and Dwyane Wade captured the remaining votes. Nelson and Sloan are interesting choices; Nelson certainly won't make it as a player but you could put together a very good case for him as a coach. Sloan was a much more accomplished player than Nelson--though still not HoF caliber--but he too merits consideration as a coach. Restricting the choices strictly to active players, my top five future HoFers would be (in alphabetical order) Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, James and O'Neal. The reality is that there are more than five active future Hall of Famers; Nash will automatically get in with his two MVPs, Kidd is a lock and the Finals MVP cemented things for Paul Pierce if anyone had any doubts. Iverson should make it, too, though he will have his share of detractors. It's too early to say that Howard, Paul, Wade or Stoudemire are HoFers, though they each certainly seem to be on that course (if James got hurt and did not play again he would already make it, a la Gale Sayers in the NFL). Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady will get in eventually, but perhaps not on the first ballot as things stand now. I suspect that Chauncey Billups will make it, too, on the basis of his Finals MVP and "Mr. Big Shot" pedigree.

Without further ado, here is the question that many basketball fans have been debating for at least the past year or so: "If you could have either on your team right now, who would you choose--Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?" Bryant received 15 votes and James received six. Detlef Schrempf gave the most pragmatic explanation: "Kobe for today, LeBron for the future." Johnny "Red" Kerr chose Kobe because of "his defense and his smarts." Strickland gave a somewhat paradoxical answer: "Kobe is the best individual player in the league but I would take LeBron because of his all-around skills."

As for two other popular comparisons, Paul (16) received the nod over Deron Williams (3) as the league's best point guard, with two voters copping out by saying it is too close to call; Duncan (12) defeated Garnett (6) for top power forward honors, with three voters declaring that matchup a tie.

That same Sporting News issue also contains a cover story about Bryant, including a season by season rundown of his career. Some of the season subtitles are quite revealing and the recaps detail aspects of Bryant's career that many fans have probably forgotten. For instance, 1999-00--Bryant's fourth year--is headlined "Defense." The Lakers went 67-15 and won the first of three titles in the O'Neal-Bryant era in Phil Jackson's first year coaching the team; under Jackson's leadership, the Lakers improved from 17th in defensive field goal percentage to first and Bryant earned the first of his six All-Defensive First Team selections (he has also made the Second Team twice). Bryant held Reggie Miller to 1-16 field goal shooting in game one of the Finals. Miller says, "What made him so tough was that he has those long arms and good anticipation. He plays the passing lanes so well. And you can't move him--he's strong. At shooting guard, you have to have strength. He is probably the strongest shooting guard in our game." Bryant sprained his ankle early in game two and missed all of game three but he came up big in the pivotal overtime session of game four after O'Neal fouled out, enabling the Lakers to take a 3-1 series lead en route to a six game victory.

The 2000-01 season is titled "Swagger," the primary example being game four of the Western Conference semifinals versus Sacramento. By halftime, O'Neal was in foul trouble and the Lakers trailed by nine points. Bryant already had scored 20 points and he declared to his teammates, "We're winning this (expletive) game." The Lakers won 119-113 as Bryant played all 48 minutes and finished with 48 points and 16 rebounds, his playoff career-highs in both categories at the time; his next game was not too shabby, either: 45 points and 10 rebounds in a 104-90 game one victory over San Antonio.

"Passing" is the theme for 2001-02, something that may shock people who think that Bryant did not become a good passer until 2007-08 (the reality is that he was the leading playmaker on all three championship teams). Bryant averaged a then-career high 5.5 apg in 2001-02 (a figure that he has since exceeded twice and nearly matched in each of the past two seasons). That was the second of six seasons in which Bryant averaged at least 25 ppg, five apg and five rpg; as I noted earlier this year, only Oscar Robertson (nine) and Michael Jordan (seven) have more 25-5-5 seasons than Bryant does.

Magic Johnson says, "Kobe is an amazing talent. His basketball IQ is off the charts. I thought, from Day 1 when I saw him, he could always pass. But I, and the media, we didn't shine a light on his passing because he could score so much. He has shown, though, that he can dominate the game with his passing. He sees the floor so well. I think that is why, now, he is an MVP. He showed everybody he has a well-rounded game. He can make passes off the dribble, he knows his teammates and knows how to find them. He understands the angles of the game."

The 2002-03 season is titled "3-point shooting." Up to that point, Bryant had yet to establish himself as a great shooter behind the arc but in the summer prior to that season Bryant made 1000 three point shots a day. That work paid off in a January 7, 2003 119-98 win over Seattle when Bryant drilled a league-record 12 three pointers, breaking Dennis Scott's mark. Scott recalls, "It would be one thing if I lost the record to a guy who just popped up, got lucky, then went on to do nothing else. But I had a chance to see Kobe in training camp. I watched how hard he was working to make himself a three point shooter. It wasn't something that came natural to him. It was hard work. I remember the night he broke the record. I was at home watching it and I wasn't surprised. I was smiling. I said, 'This guy earned it.'"

Bryant was a 23 year old six year veteran prior to the 2002-03 season. James is a 23 year old going into his sixth season right now and his three point shooting percentage has declined for three straight seasons (his free throw percentage has also been trending downward, from .754 as a rookie to .698 in 2007 and up slightly to .712 last season). Although the NBA does not officially keep stats for midrange jumpers, James is very erratic from that area as well (when NBA TV recently aired a Cavs season preview and showed James' "hot spots" as a shooter the paint was red hot but everything outside of the lane was ice cold). I know that James has been working diligently on his shooting touch with Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent, though I'm not sure if James is on a 1000 makes per day regimen from any range, let alone solely on three pointers--but that is an example of what Bryant did to become the league's best player and a worthy model for James to emulate.

* Otis Birdsong, Phil Chenier, Dave Cowens, Bobby Dandridge, World B. Free, A.C. Green, Lionel Hollins, Marc Iavaroni, Eddie Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Johnny "Red" Kerr, Mitch Kupchak, Bob Lanier, Jamal Mashburn, Bob McAdoo, Sam Perkins, Micheal Ray Richardson, Detlef Schrempf, Rod Strickland, Nate Thurmond, Buck Williams.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:39 AM


Friday, October 24, 2008

Cavaliers Season Preview for Cavs News

I just wrote a Cleveland Cavaliers season preview exclusively for Cavs News. The preview that I did for the blogger previews project conformed to a standard template provided by Jeff Clark of Celtics Blog, who is doing a fine job coordinating that endeavor; the Cavs News preview is a scouting-report style article that not only discusses the team as a whole but also looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the main rotation players (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Cavs have been a strong playoff team the past three years, twice making it to the Eastern Conference semifinals (2006, 2008) and once reaching the NBA Finals (2007). Only San Antonio and Detroit have won more playoff series than Cleveland during that time span. In 2007 and 2008, the Cavs were eliminated by the eventual NBA champions. Cleveland fans can therefore either be amused or annoyed that their team is consistently underrated by outside observers.

During the offseason, General Manager Danny Ferry attempted to strengthen the team’s most obvious weakness by acquiring veteran point guard Mo Williams; now the Cavs have someone other than LeBron James who can create shots for himself and his teammates. Holdouts and injuries slowed the Cavs down for much of last season but this year the Cavs appear to have all hands on deck.

The Cavs have three former All-Stars--Zydrunas Ilgauskas (2003, 2005), Ben Wallace (2003-06) and Wally Szczerbiak (2002)--but LeBron James is the team’s only current All-Star level player. However, the eight man rotation is solid, versatile and performs very well as a unit, particularly in the postseason.

Team Scouting Report:

Defense: James is a breathtakingly talented player who is still improving but there is no such thing as a one man team in the NBA—at least, there is no such thing as a successful one man team. Michael Jordan played on three sub-.500 teams, including the year that he scored 37.1 ppg, the highest non-Wilt Chamberlain average in NBA history; individually, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each missed the playoffs in 2006-07 but collectively they led Boston to the 2008 NBA title. Cleveland’s success is built on three foundations: James’ individual brilliance is certainly one of those cornerstones but rebounding and team defense are also crucial. Coach Mike Brown’s challenge this season will be to make sure that Williams plus the youngsters (J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson and Tarence Kinsey) understand and accept the team’s defensive mindset. It is very important that James continues to lead by example in this regard; like most young players, he was not a good defender initially but now he willingly accepts the challenge at that end of the court.

Offense: This is the area that most exasperates fans and commentators alike; the general consensus is that the Cavs should play at a faster tempo and be more creative. By his own admission, Coach Brown focuses more attention on defensive game plans than offensive schemes. Also, prior to the acquisition of Williams, the Cavs did not have anyone other than James who could push the ball up the court and make good decisions. The Cavs will most likely play at a faster tempo this season but the Cavs simply do not have enough dynamic finishers to really thrive in the uptempo game—and Brown, like most defensive-minded coaches, will always want to control the tempo to some extent to make sure that the Cavs can set up their half court defense and not give up easy baskets.

In the half court set, the pick and roll play is a staple for the Cavs (as it is for many NBA teams); James is usually the ballhandler, though this season he will be able to play off the ball at times when Williams is in the game. Ilgauskas generally fades to the wing after setting a screen and he has a nice shooting touch in the 15-18 foot range. The Cavs also like to use Anderson Varejao as a screener; even though Varejao’s effective shooting range is confined to the paint, this play is still successful because he sets solid screens and rolls very aggressively to the hoop. Daniel Gibson, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Sasha Pavlovic will mainly be expected to nail outside shots when the defense collapses into the paint, though West, Pavlovic and sometimes even Gibson can also drive to the hoop, particularly if they catch the ball on the wing with a rotating defender running out toward them. Szczerbiak can use his size to post up smaller shooting guards.

James has the size and athleticism to be a very good post player but has yet to show the inclination to consistently punish smaller defenders by taking them down on the block, preferring instead to face up defenders on the perimeter and bull his way to the hoop off of the dribble. If James had a more reliable jump shot then he could incorporate that into his post game by backing his defender down and then turning away from the help defense to shoot a midrange, fadeaway jumper; that became Jordan’s bread and butter move during his first comeback (1995-98, when he led the Bulls to three straight titles) and is also a part of Kobe Bryant’s repertoire.

Individual Player Scouting Reports (Starters/Key Reserves):

LeBron James

Strengths: James is a physically imposing player whose powerful drives to the hoop are almost unstoppable. His court vision is remarkable and his ability to throw accurate, cross court passes punishes trapping defenses. His defense used to be a weakness but that is no longer the case; not only is he very adept at jumping into passing lanes to get steals as well as helping out in the paint by blocking shots but his understanding of team defensive principles has greatly improved. James is on the verge of being an All-Defensive Team caliber player.

Weaknesses: James is a below average free throw shooter and his jump shot is very erratic. For that reason, the better defensive teams in the league concede the jump shot to James while building a wall around the paint. As a last resort, teams foul James to make him earn his points at the free throw line.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Strengths: Ilgauskas is a very good perimeter shooter who can also score in the paint with awkward-looking but effective post moves. He is not much of a leaper but he uses his 7-3 height and long wingspan very effectively to block shots and rebound, particularly on the offensive glass. He has shot better than .800 from the free throw line the past three seasons and is a career .781 free throw shooter.

Weaknesses: Ilgauskas is not very mobile. He suffered several foot injuries early in his career, so even though he has been healthy in recent seasons there is always an underlying concern that those problems could flare up again as he gets older.

Ben Wallace

Strengths: Wallace is an energy player who rebounds and blocks shots. It is sometimes suggested that his teams have to play four on five offensively because he is not a scoring threat but that is not really a fair assessment; the defense must be aware of Wallace on the offensive boards and even though he does not get a lot of assists he is a capable passer, particularly against defenses that initially leave him uncovered and then are in scramble mode once the Cavs begin reversing the ball.

Weaknesses: Wallace is an atrocious free throw shooter who cannot reliably make a shot outside of five feet from the hoop. He is an undersized inside player who used to rely on athleticism and conditioning to outperform bigger and taller players but he has lost a step, so it is more difficult for him to be a dominant rebounder and defender. As he has gotten older he has naturally become more prone to suffering nagging injuries, most notably to his back.

Mo Williams

Strengths: Williams can create open shots for himself and others.

Weaknesses: Williams has been a subpar defensive player so far during his career and that will have to change in order for him to play heavy minutes for Coach Mike Brown.

Wally Szczerbiak

Strengths: Although he has yet to consistently show this during his brief time in Cleveland, Szczerbiak is a deadeye shooter from all distances (two point range, three point field goals and the three point line).

Weaknesses: Szczerbiak is a below average rebounder, passer and defender.

Anderson Varejao

Strengths: Varejao’s energy, mobility, defense and rebounding are very important for the Cavs; they simply were not the same team in any of those areas when he held out. Varejao’s playing style tends to annoy opponents and throw them off of their games.

Weaknesses: Varejao has little offensive game outside of the paint but at times he seems to not understand that.

Delonte West

Strengths: West is a steady pro who does not necessarily excel in any one particular area.

Weaknesses: Just as West does not have one area in which he excels, he also does not have one area in which he is seriously deficient. One quibble would be that he could draw more fouls but that depends a bit on whether he is used more as a spot up shooter or as a point guard; when he is playing point guard he should be able to get into the paint, initiate contact and create more free throw opportunities than he has so far during his career.

Daniel Gibson

Strengths: Gibson is a very gifted outside shooter who has proved that he can nail big shots in clutch situations. He is more athletic and stronger than he appears to be at first glance, sort of a 21st century version of B.J. Armstrong.

Weaknesses: Gibson is small for a shooting guard but does not possess top flight ballhandling or playmaking skills; he can play point guard for spot minutes, particularly against second unit personnel, but in general he needs to be on the court with someone who can be the primary ballhandler, such as James, Williams and/or West.

Sasha Pavlovic

Strengths: Pavlovic can make outside shots or drive to the hoop. He has the size and athletic ability to play shooting guard or small forward.

Weaknesses: Defense used to be a major weakness—at one time, he told Coach Mike Brown that his offense was his defense, an attitude that resulted in Pavlovic being glued to the bench for a while. However, Pavlovic has improved defensively. The big problem now is that ever since his holdout early last season he has not been completely healthy.

Miscellaneous Notes:

The Cavs hope that rookie J.J. Hickson will provide frontcourt depth. His playing time will be directly linked to how effective he is defensively. Tarence Kinsey started 12 games for the Grizzlies in 2006-07 but only played in 11 NBA games last season before signing with Fenerbahce Ulker of the Turkish Basketball League; he is a young, athletic player who could develop into a valuable reserve. Lorenzen Wright’s production has steadily declined since he nearly averaged a double double in 2001-02 and he figures to be little more than a practice player at this stage of his career.

Team Summary:

Barring serious injury problems, the Cavs will once again perform better than many “experts” expect; the Cavs are fully capable of winning 55 games, contending for the best regular season record in the East and making another deep playoff run. The Boston Celtics have to be considered the best team in the East as the season begins but the Cavs are certainly capable of posing a serious threat to the defending champions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:47 AM


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Interesting Results in NBA GM Survey

NBA general managers annually participate in a poll about league-wide issues prior to the season. You can check out most of the questions and answers here; you will have to do some extra pointing and clicking because NBA.com apparently does not possess the necessary editorial and/or technical know-how to place all of the material coherently on one page (I had a dream that they hired some competent editors but then I woke up and nothing had changed).

Blowhard commentators and fans make a lot of declarations about who is the best player in the NBA in various categories but GMs make their livings figuring out such things. That is not to say that the GMs' evaluations are perfect but their judgments are more informed than those made by people who only see part of the picture or whose statements are shaped by ignorance and/or their rooting interests. It is interesting to see how the NBA looks from the perspective of the 30 people who helm the league's franchises.

The Lakers are the choice as the team most likely to win the 2009 championship, receiving 46.2% of the votes, followed by the Celtics (19.2%), the Hornets (11.5%), the Rockets (7.7%) and the Spurs (7.7%). The Pistons and Magic were the only other teams who received consideration.

Kevin Garnett easily is the GMs' choice as the best defensive player in the league, capturing 44.4% of the vote, doubling second place finisher Ron Artest's total (22.2%). Kobe Bryant ranked third.

When only perimeter defense is considered, Bruce Bowen topped the charts, Bryant ranked second and Artest came in third, which is a bit odd since Artest finished ahead of Bryant overall but neither player ranked among the top interior defenders (Kevin Garnett ranked first in that area, with Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard tying for second); perhaps Artest finished ahead of Bryant in the overall defensive voting because he can guard four different positions while Bryant can guard three different positions.

Bryant edged out Artest, Bowen and Rajon Rondo (three way tie for second) as the best on-ball defender in the NBA. Allen Iverson led the way in terms of defending passing lanes, with Trevor Ariza and Caron Butler tying for second and Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul tying for fourth-sixth.

Artest was voted the toughest player in the NBA (37.0%), followed by Bryant (14.8%). A total of 13 players received at least one vote in this category.

Bryant had two of the biggest landslide wins in the voting: he received 88.9% of the votes for the player you would most want to take a shot with the game on the line (Gilbert Arenas, James and Paul Pierce were the only other players to receive any votes). This is the seventh straight year that Bryant has won this category. Bryant received 81.5% of the votes for being the best player at getting his own shot. Tracy McGrady came in second (7.4%), with Manu Ginobili, Ben Gordon and LeBron James also receiving votes.

Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times reported that most of the GMs (56%) expect James to win the MVP, with Bryant (37%) and Chris Paul (7%) receiving the remaining votes. Apparently, NBA.com forgot to include that portion of the ballot when they posted the results; you cannot find those numbers at the NBA.com link that I provided above. It turns out that NBA Media Central, which can only be accessed by media members, has the complete survey results and they managed to place them all on one document; consulting that source, I not only found the MVP numbers that Bresnahan mentioned but I also discovered that James easily wins as the player who GMs would choose first if they were starting a franchise today (66.7%), with Bryant finishing second (18.5%). However, it is obvious that this has more to do with James' youth than a skill set comparison with Bryant, because the GMs decisively chose Bryant as the player who forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments (63.0%), with James placing second (25.9%). Why would the GMs say that James will win the MVP if Bryant is the most difficult player to coach against? This should also be obvious: the GMs were not asked who they expect to be the best player but rather who they expect to win the MVP; James has inherited from Bryant the distinction of being the best active player who has not won the MVP and, barring an injury to James or an absolutely mind-blowing season by Bryant, I also expect James to win the MVP, even though James will probably still objectively be the second best player in the league behind Bryant.

Bryant and James each received 92% of the votes for best player at their position (shooting guard and small forward respectively). Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade received the only other votes at shooting guard, while Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce received the remaining votes at small forward.

Paul (88.9%) beat out Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Deron Williams as the league's best point guard.

Tim Duncan (51.9%) still is considered the best power forward, beating out Garnett (25.9%), Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard.

Howard (55.6%) won as the best center, finishing ahead of Yao Ming (25.9%) and Duncan. Howard and Duncan apparently were the only players who received votes at two different positions.

James received 59.3% of the votes for most athletic player in the NBA, with Josh Smith (22.2%) ranking a distant second. Bryant, Shawn Marion, Jamario Moon, Dwyane Wade and Gerald Wallace also received votes.

Ray Allen (61.1%) decisively won the election for best shooter, followed by Jason Kapono (14.8%), Peja Stojakovic, Kyle Korver and Michael Redd. I am surprised that Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki did not receive more consideration.

Gregg Popovich is the landslide winner as the best coach (53.8%), with Phil Jackson ranking second (23.1%). It is pretty clear exactly how the GMs made that determination: Jackson placed first as a manager/motivator (Popovich is second) but Popovich is the leader in terms of making in-game adjustments while Jackson did not crack the top five in that area. Popovich also won decisively as the best coach in the last two minutes of the game, while Jackson tied for third. Larry Brown ranked second in both of the latter categories.

What do all of these numbers and rankings tell us? The categories that are most interesting to look at are the ones involving individual defense, creating a shot under pressure and defining who the league's best player is. Media members and fans sometimes suggest that Kobe Bryant is overrated as a defender but knowledgeable basketball observers do not agree with that assessment:

1) The NBA's head coaches annually vote Bryant to the All-Defensive Team.
2) The NBA's GMs consistently list Bryant as one of the league's top defenders.
3) Everyone associated with Team USA--from managing director Jerry Colangelo to the coaching staff to the other players--mentioned that Bryant's defensive performance was a key factor in returning the Olympic gold medal to the United States.

The main reasonable objection that is sometimes brought up about Bryant's defense is that he carries such a heavy offensive burden for the Lakers that he does not play lockdown defense for 40 minutes per game but that he chooses his spots. It is undeniable that Bryant could more readily play lockdown defense in a handful of Olympic games at 20-25 mpg than he could in 82 regular season games at 40 mpg but I would like to know who exactly in the NBA plays lockdown defense for 40 mpg during 82 games a year; that is an unrealistic standard to expect from anyone.

Bryant's decisive victories in the balloting concerning creating one's own shot and taking a last second shot are tributes to how fundamentally sound his game is. Bryant is not the most athletic or explosive player in the game--though he still has plenty of explosiveness left--but he is rightly considered to be a far deadlier late game option than anyone else and the reason for that is that Bryant's footwork, fakes, shooting range, dribbling skills and ability to move without the ball make him a scoring threat from anywhere on the court.

As noted above, the GMs expect James to win the 2009 MVP over Bryant but by a significantly wider margin they selected Bryant over James as the player who creates the most problems for opposing coaches. The much younger James understandably gets the nod over Bryant as the best player to build a franchise around but it is actually a tribute to Bryant's status that he was considered at all in that category: one does not usually think in terms of "building" a team around a player who is older than 30.

Taken as a whole--considering defense, shot creation, last second shots--these voting results simply reinforce and confirm the assessment that I have made regarding Bryant and James for quite some time: Bryant is the best player in the NBA right now but James is certainly gunning for that number one spot and he has youth and athleticism on his side to counter Bryant's edges in skill set and fundamentals. James could certainly surpass Bryant this year but what is more likely to happen is that they will continue to be a close 1-2, and simply being close to Bryant may be enough for James to capture his first MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:45 AM


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Northwest Division Blogger Previews

The Northwest Division blogger previews are listed below. Also, here are links to the division previews that I previously posted:

Atlantic Division

Southwest Division

Central Division

Denver Nuggets

Jeremy: Pickaxe and Roll
Nick Sclafani: The Nugg Doctor

Minnesota Timberwolves

Derek Hanson & Staff: TWolves Blog
Andrew Thell: Empty the Bench
wyn: Canis Hoopus

Oklahoma City

xphoenix87: BallerBlogger
Zorgon: Blue Blitz
Royce: The Thunderworld

Portland Trail Blazers

Mookie: ...a stern warning
Benjamin Golliver: Blazers Edge
Coup and SJ: Rip City Project

Utah Jazz

UtesFan89: The Utah Jazz
Basketball John: SLC Dunk

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 PM


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Athletic Minds

The October 4, 2008 issue of New Scientist contains an article titled "Beautiful Minds" (subscription required to read the entire text) in which Helen Phillips explains that elite athletes differ from ordinary people not only physically but also mentally. It is interesting to speculate whether the minds of elite athletes are changed by the way that the athletes practice and play their sports or if the initial conditions in their minds make them better suited to becoming elite athletes in the first place (the classic nature/nurture debate). Phillips writes:

Many sports require specific patterns of stereotypical body movements, and these certainly leave their mark on the brain. In the somatosensory cortex, which monitors signals from different parts of the body, and the neighboring motor cortex, which controls movements, areas corresponding to the most regularly used body parts expand with use.

Phillips adds:

Good hand-eye coordination can also be traced to a specific part of the brain. Tests in the lab using prisms that alter hand-eye relationships by shifting images to the right or left or turning them upside down reveal that some people adapt more quickly than others. Those with more dynamic hand-eye coordination show greater activity in a region called PEG in the parietal cortex--which contains maps of space and of our bodies--on the opposite side to the movement.

It is interesting but not surprising that hand-eye coordination can be linked to a particular brain region but Phillips' concluding note is perhaps the most fascinating element in the article; there may be a specific molecule that fosters what is colloquially called "mental toughness":

Some people may also have brains that allow them to keep on going when lesser competitors give up. The sensation of tiredness we get from sporting activity seems to be generated not in the muscles but in the brain, through a signaling molecule called interleukin-6. Perhaps this signal is naturally weaker or easier to ignore in some brains. If so, this might be why some athletes can push their bodies beyond the limits that most people are able to endure.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM