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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

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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:

Cleveland Cavaliers 2008-09 Season Preview

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:47 AM

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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

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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

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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

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