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Saturday, November 08, 2008
Excerpt from New Edition of Mark Heisler's Madmen's Ball
The first edition of Mark Heisler's book Madmen's Ball: The Inside Story of the Lakers' Dysfunctional Dynasties was published in October 2004, not long after the most recent Lakers' dynasty imploded in the wake of a 4-1 loss in the NBA Finals followed by the trading of Shaquille O'Neal to Miami and the resignation of Phil Jackson. Of course, O'Neal went on to win a championship with the Heat before presiding over perhaps the quickest and most complete collapse by a champion in NBA history: within two years O'Neal's Heat were the worst team in the NBA and he had found an escape hatch to Phoenix. Meanwhile, Jackson sat out one year before returning to the Lakers and Bryant won two scoring titles as the undermanned Lakers struggled to make the playoffs. Last year, of course, everything fell into place after the Pau Gasol trade as Bryant won his first MVP and led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.
A revised and updated version of Madmen's Ball has just been published but instead of focusing on the new material the L.A. Times chose to run an excerpt dealing with the final chapter of the O'Neal-Bryant feud. It would seem to make more sense for Heisler's own newspaper to highlight his insights about the Lakers' rebirth last season but there is a certain value to looking back on the O'Neal-Bryant feud now that a few years have passed. Bryant's reputation was undoubtedly at its nadir when Heisler's book was first published but since that time a lot of people have come to understand that they misjudged Bryant--or, if they don't possess the introspective character necessary to draw such a conclusion then they have convinced themselves that they have remained the same but Bryant has transformed into a completely different person than the "selfish" one that he allegedly was just four short years ago (keep in mind that Bryant had already been the leading playmaker on three championship squads while making the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams, honors that are not typically bestowed on "selfish" players).
The general public often bought into the version of events that the gregarious O'Neal communicated to his numerous friends in the media, though O'Neal's credibility has taken a hit now that the Heat imploded around him while Bryant proved that he certainly can be the leader of a championship caliber squad. Heisler reports that for Bryant the final straw came in the 2003 training camp when O'Neal declared of Bryant, "He doesn't need advice on how to play his position, but he needs advice on how to play team ball. As we start this new season, [things have] to be done right. If you don't like it, then you can opt out next year. If it's going to be my team, I'll voice my opinion. If he don't like it, he can opt out...I ain't going nowhere." Heisler quotes Bryant's point by point refutation of O'Neal's criticisms and O'Neal's conduct:
"There's more to life than whose team this is, but this is his team so it's time for him to act like it. That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court. It also means no more blaming others for our team's failure or blaming staff members for not overdramatizing your injuries so that you avoid blame for your lack of conditioning. Also, 'my team' doesn't mean only when we win. It means carrying the burden of defeat just as gracefully as you carry a championship trophy.
"Leaders don't beg for contract extensions and negotiate some $30-million-plus deal in the media when we have two future Hall of Famers playing here basically for free. A leader would not demand the ball when you have three of us besides you, not to mention the teammates that he's gone to war with the past three years...By the way, you also don't threaten not to play defense and not to rebound if you don't get the ball every time down the floor."
On playing in pain: "I don't need Shaq's advice on how to play hurt. I've played with IVs before...with a broken hand, a sprained ankle, a fractured tooth, a severed lip, and a knee the size of a softball. I didn't miss 15 games because of a toe injury that everybody knows wasn't that serious."
On their relationship: "He is not my quote-unquote big brother. A big brother would have called me up over the summer."
Where Does Tony Parker Rightfully Rank Among NBA Point Guards?
Tony Parker's 55 points and 10 assists in a 129-125 double overtime San Antonio victory over Minnesota are significant for reasons beyond the fact that Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson are the only other players in NBA history to reach those point and assist totals in the same game.
There are three ways to look at what Parker did:
1) This is a fluke performance. 2) Parker's skill set remains the same but the situation necessitated that he assume a bigger offensive role on the team. 3) This is a breakout game signifying a quantum leap in the quality of his skill set.
These three statements are not entirely mutually exclusive. Clearly, considering the historical context that only two players--two all-time greats--have ever matched these numbers, it is highly likely that Parker will never have another game quite like this. In that sense, the numbers are fluky (that is not at all the same thing as saying that Parker merely got "lucky" to play so well). It is obvious that with Manu Ginobili out of the lineup both Parker and Tim Duncan are shooting the ball much more frequently than usual. That said, perhaps the coming weeks and months will confirm that Parker has taken his game to another level; he does not have to put up 55-10 every night to prove that but if he suddenly becomes a 25-8 player for an extended period then that would be a big improvement over his career averages of 16.1-5.5 and his single season bests of 18.9 ppg (2006) and 6.1 apg (2005).
While no one could have predicted that Parker would have this kind of single game output, considering his skill set--blazing speed, excellent ball handling abilities, good finisher in the paint, erratic but sometimes deadly jump shot--it makes sense that he can score 50-plus points when everything comes together: high number of field goal attempts (36, five more than his previous career-high), excellent field goal percentage (.611, significantly better than his already good career norm of .488), better free throw percentage than usual (9-10) and a couple three pointers thrown in for good measure (Parker only made 17 three pointers in the entire 2008 season).
When teams were lining up this summer to offer big money deals to Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis, I did a post that ranked the top point guards in the NBA based on their skill sets: Chris Paul finished first, followed by Steve Nash, Deron Williams and Tony Parker. In other words, long before Parker made the highlight shows on Wednesday night, I considered him to be an elite point guard, a better player than the more heralded Arenas and Davis.
All things considered, Parker's outstanding performance does not really alter my opinion of his game--at least not yet. The reason that I don't have to alter my opinion is that my opinion was based on a skill set evaluation of his game, as opposed to blindly looking at numbers or being mesmerized by a player's "swag" and other irrelevant considerations. San Antonio's system normally has a suppressing effect on individual player numbers because Gregg Popovich's limits the minutes of his star players and those three stars split up the offensive duties pretty evenly. Based purely on their skill sets, each of those players could put up bigger numbers, so it is not correct to evaluate them solely on their statistics.
Parker is a top notch point guard who had a great performance; the absence of Ginobili and the fact that the game went to double overtime further contributed to the numbers that Parker put up.
It is interesting to look at one "stats guru's" take on all of this. According to John Hollinger's "adjusted game score" calculations, Parker's performance is the 43rd best single game performance in the NBA since the 2001-02 season. Amare Stoudemire's 49 point, 11 rebound, six assist game versus Indiana last night ranks 15th on Hollinger's list, largely because Stoudemire shot a much better percentage than Parker and Stoudemire did all of his work in regulation, though Parker actually only played seven more minutes than Stoudemire did. By the way, Hollinger asserts that Kobe Bryant's 81 point game in 2006 is easily the best single-game performance of the past seven years; Bryant has three of the top four games and five of the top 14.
Hollinger ranked Parker as the top player in the NBA so far this season even before this game; now he credits Parker with a stratospheric 39.41 Player Efficiency Rating (PER). To put that in perspective, according to BasketballReference.com, Michael Jordan is the career PER leader with 27.91, while the best single season PER ever is Wilt Chamberlain's 31.84 in 1962-63. Granted, Parker's rating is only based on four games--and he played at a historically great level in one of them--so this is a bit like a baseball player who hits .400 in the first month of the season before settling back to his regular level but I still think that this is a good example of how numbers crunchers often miss the big picture: in 2007-08, Parker did not even make the top 20 in Hollinger's PER rankings but now we are supposed to believe that he is playing at a higher level than Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain did? Parker's raw box score numbers--the figures that "stat gurus" deride as meaningless--are 33.3 ppg, 7.3 apg and .564 field goal shooting through the first four games. Yes, I realize that once there is a larger sample size for Parker's games his PER number will regress to a more sensible level but my point is that this example gives a vivid demonstration of how PER does not accurately and meaningfully quantify a player's abilities, either over a four game stretch or a season--unless you think that Parker is playing significantly better than Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain did when they were at their best.
Michael Crichton's Concerns About the State of the Media Today
Michael Crichton, the creator of the TV series "ER" and author of the novels "The Andromeda Strain," "Disclosure" and "Jurassic Park," passed away on Tuesday. A few months before he died, he offered some very insightful comments about the state of the media today:
LeBron James scored a season-high 41 points on 13-23 field goal shooting and 15-16 free throw shooting as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Chicago Bulls 107-93 in Cleveland; the teams will play a rematch in Chicago on Saturday night. James also had nine rebounds, six assists and four steals despite twice tweaking his left ankle, once early in the game and then again late in the fourth quarter. This was the 20th 40-5-5 of James' career; he ranks fourth among active players in that category, trailing Allen Iverson (28), Kobe Bryant (23) and Tracy McGrady (22). James averaged at least 25-5-5 in four of his first five seasons and has a good shot of breaking Oscar Robertson's record of nine such seasons.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas had an off shooting night (6-16) but finished with a solid double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds). Delonte West (16 points) and Mo Williams (13 points) also scored in double figures.
Ben Gordon led the Bulls with 31 points. Rookie point guard Derrick Rose started out on fire--making his first four shots--and showed flashes of brilliance en route to producing 20 points and seven assists, though he shot just 3-12 after his early outburst. Rose is quick, strong and poised; he is already a pretty good player and it looks like he could eventually develop into a terrific player. Luol Deng started slowly but finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. The Bulls shot just .392 from the field and were outrebounded 46-35 as the Cavaliers followed their recipe for victory to perfection: James' brilliance supplemented by excellent defense and rebounding.
James has made 28 of his 31 free throws in the past two games, raising his season percentage to .782. That would be a career-high for him but it remains to be seen if he can maintain that level; James has had runs during which he shot .800 from the free throw line only to end the season back around the .700 mark. He is literally a streak shooter from the free throw line; last season he went 31-36 (.861) in a three game stretch only to plummet to 21-31 (.677) in the next three games.
ESPN commentator Jon Barry noticed exactly the same defect in James' free throw shooting routine that I described in my recap of Cleveland's 96-79 win over Charlotte: James looks at the floor until right before he shoots, as opposed to looking at his target (the rim) for a longer period of time. Barry made an analogy to a golf swing, saying that a good golfer focuses on the ball before striking it; another relevant analogy would be to refer to how baseball hitting instructors tell their players to "see the ball." That may sound simplistic but if you are trying to hit a target--whether it is a golf ball on a tee, a basket that is 15 feet away or a baseball moving toward you at 90 miles per hour--you have to concentrate intently on that target; you cannot just look at it a split second before you make your attempt to shoot or swing.
In his pregame remarks, Barry said that James is the best player in the NBA when he is on the move toward the basket. That is probably true but the flipside to that is that James is a well below average player when he shoots the ball outside of the paint: prior to this game he had made two thirds of his shots in the paint this season but only connected on six of his 34 shots outside of the paint, including 0-11 from three point range (he is now 0-13 after missing both of his three point attempts versus Chicago). This is not a matter of a small sample size either--while this particular sample size is small, James' shooting numbers outside of the paint have been subpar throughout his career.
James is an elite, MVP level player because of how efficiently he can score in the paint, his passing, his rebounding and his improving defense but his striking inability to consistently make shots outside of the paint is a detriment not only to him becoming the best player in the league but also to Cleveland's championship aspirations. Sure, it is possible that he can win an MVP without ever becoming a good shooter and it is possible--though a bit less likely--that he can lead Cleveland to a title without improving this weakness but it will certainly be much easier for him to accomplish those things if he develops a better shooting touch. In the past two postseasons, Cleveland has been eliminated by the eventual champion in part because elite level teams limit James' paint touches in a way that lesser teams--or teams playing the fourth game in five nights during the regular season--cannot do.
New Schmap Widget Enables You to Follow Your Favorite Team
You may have noticed a new addition to the right hand sidebar: the Schmap widget enables you to easily and quickly look up the schedule and stats not just for any NBA team but also to find similar information about the NFL, MLB, college basketball, the NHL, NASCAR, Formula 1, golf, rugby and European football by just hovering your cursor above the arrow in the uppermost righthand corner of the widget and then selecting your sport of choice. Now you don't have to leave 20 Second Timeout when you want to find out what is happening--or what is about to happen--anywhere in the world of sports!
Celtics Edge Rockets in an Intriguing Early Season Encounter
The Boston Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets 103-99 in Houston in a game that some people touted as an NBA Finals preview. Obviously, such talk is extremely premature--at this time last year no one could have imagined that the Celtics and the Lakers would meet in the 2008 NBA Finals--but it is still interesting to examine some of the things that this contest demonstrated:
1) Both teams pride themselves on defense and rebounding but the Celtics won in both of those areas, holding Houston to .391 field goal shooting (Boston shot .519 from the field despite off nights from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) and outrebounding the Rockets 46-41. Are the Rockets mentally and physically tough enough to truly contend with the league's elite teams? Every year the Rockets go out of the playoffs in the first round. The addition of Ron Artest is supposed to bolster Houston in this respect but he cannot guard all five players at once--and despite his tough defense his game is not without flaws, either (see below).
2) The Celtics--specifically Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins--set the best illegal screens in the NBA; the Celtics maintained their lead down the stretch by repeatedly running Ray Allen (29 points on 11-15 shooting) off of double baseline moving screens set by Garnett and Perkins. Tracy McGrady did not seem particularly enthusiastic about fighting his way through those screens. Finally, the Rockets switched Artest on to Allen and put McGrady on Pierce. Artest smothered Allen so much that he could barely breathe, let alone touch the ball, though Allen did break free long enough to receive one pass before Artest bulled his way through traffic and forced Allen to give up the ball to an open Garnett, who buried a long jumper to put Boston up 100-95 with :59 left. The Celtics are a big, physical team that pushes, holds and grabs at both ends of the court and it will take a physical, tough-minded team to beat them in a seven game series.
3) Skillful finesse players--particularly frontcourt players--face a major challenge against Boston. We saw Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom all but disappear in the 2008 NBA Finals after being effective throughout the regular season and through the first three rounds of the playoffs, including a victory over the defending champion Spurs. Yao Ming towers over Perkins, yet Perkins pushed him around, blocked several of his shots and put up better box score numbers (15 points on 7-8 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocked shots compared to eight points on 4-14 shooting, seven rebounds and no blocked shots for Yao). Even though Yao struggled at times, when he was out of the game the Rockets looked even worse because then their frontline was simply too small. It will be very interesting to see how the Rockets match up with the Lakers, who will always have a big and skillful center-power forward duo on the court.
4) Ron Artest certainly brings a tough mindset at the defensive end of the court but true toughness is also defined by having a sound decision making process under pressure. Artest shot 3-16 from the field, including 3-10 from three point range. There is no reason that Artest should be firing up 10 three pointers in a game; he'd be far more effective using that big body to set screens for the team's shooters and then crashing the offensive boards--but despite his reputation, Artest has never been a great rebounder for his size or position. He did have seven rebounds against Boston but he has never averaged more than 6.5 rpg in a season during his career and his career average is just 5.1 rpg, a number befitting a shooting guard but not a bruising small forward who is built like a power forward. Artest only participated in the playoffs four times in his first nine seasons and only got out of the first round once, so he has a lot to prove in terms of truly being a difference maker at an elite level.
5) Kevin Garnett is in a perfect situation. He has never truly wanted to assert himself offensively or be the main man down the stretch of ball games and on this team he does not have to shoulder those responsibilities; although he did nail the big jumper off of the feed from Allen, Garnett only had four fourth quarter points and he spent most of the final stanza setting screens for Allen. Garnett is a multi-dimensional player who is a brilliant rebounder and defender and yet in a peculiar way he is also a role player. Can you picture Shaquille O'Neal anonymously setting baseline screens during his prime, let alone being happy with such a task? I know that it is tempting for Celtics' fans to compare Garnett to Bill Russell but Bill Russell was a dominant rebounder (well over 20 rpg) and shotblocker whose presence was felt on almost every possession. Garnett can be dominant in stretches but there are also stretches when you don't even notice that he is on the court. He finished with 14 points on 6-15 shooting--mostly jump shots--and 11 rebounds. He had one blocked shot and a -8 plus/minus rating. If Garnett did not have Ray Allen to score 11 fourth quarter points to secure the win then one could look at Garnett's production and rightly wonder what is so special about his game--but on this team what he provided is just enough and meshes well with what the other players contribute.
6) The difference between Boston and Houston's offensive execution was dramatic. This was not just a matter of one team making shots and the other team missing. The Celtics knew where they wanted the ball to go and how to get it there, while the Rockets often looked disjointed. Of course, Boston is a great defensive team while Houston is still trying to integrate Artest into the game plan but if the Rockets are planning on getting out of the West--let alone winning a title--then they will have to make some big strides on offense. Tracy McGrady (26 points, including 19 points on 6-13 field goal shooting in the second half) had to single-handedly carry the Rockets' offense in the second half as Artest (1-8) and Yao (1-10) shot 2-18 from the field. Artest has always believed that he should be the number one offensive option on his team and while his confidence may be a good trait in some regards it is not at all helpful in this area: Artest should be no more than the third option on the Rockets, with the scoring distribution being something along the lines of 25 ppg for Yao, 23 ppg for McGrady and perhaps 15 ppg for Artest. Rafer Alston, Shane Battier (when he returns to action), Brent Barry and McGrady should be attempting more three pointers than Artest, who currently ranks first on the squad in three pointers attempted. Even though Artest can make three pointers, he should be capable of getting in the paint and fighting for offensive rebounds, while those other players are smaller, leaner athletes who belong on the perimeter. If Artest is shooting three pointers then what are those other players supposed to be doing? This is not the Parks and Recreation Department League where you just go out and shoot three pointers if you feel like it; each player has to fill the proper role for the team to be successful. Pierce and Allen gave up shot attempts and reduced their scoring averages to play for a winner. Can Artest accept without complaint being the third leading scorer and not taking an excessive amount of three point shots?
Perhaps some of these observations may seem like nitpicking. After all, if the Rockets made a couple more shots or got a couple more stops then they could have won the game--but that is not the right way to analyze basketball, because it could just as easily be said that if Pierce and Garnett had shot their normal percentages then the Celtics would have won comfortably. The reality is that the next time these teams play the statistics put up by individual players will probably differ to some degree but the overall patterns--Boston's physical play and tough defense, Yao's difficulty dealing with physical defenders, Artest's wavering concentration on offense--will not change. During their 3-0 start prior to this game the Rockets showed that they have enough talent to win at least 50-55 games and position themselves to make a good postseason run but if they want to truly be an elite team that advances in the playoffs then they will have to play smarter and tougher at both ends of the court.
Director's Cut of ESPN NBA Destination "Twister" Ad Featuring Shaq
You have probably already seen some of the new ESPN NBA Destination ads featuring ESPN anchors and various NBA players in and around a souped up RV that represents this year's NBA journey. Here is a link to an interactive map that displays the RV's current location (in other words, the schedule of games being broadcast by ESPN):
Will Iverson Provide a Championship Answer for Detroit?
Before this season began, did you believe that the Detroit Pistons had a very good chance to win the Eastern Conference? Did you think that the Denver Nuggets could even make the playoffs in the Western Conference, let alone advance past the first round? If you answered "yes" to either of those questions then you are apparently more optimistic than the general managers of those franchises: the 2008-09 season is not even a week old and those teams have agreed to swap All-Star guards, with Detroit sending 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb to Denver for 2001 regular season MVP Allen Iverson.
Iverson and Billups are obviously the headliners in this deal. As for McDyess, he is a former All-Star (2001) and All-NBA Third Team player (1999) but at this stage of his career he is a good but not great player; he was included in the deal primarily to make the financial numbers work (Iverson makes more than $10 million per year more than Billups so by NBA salary cap rules they cannot be traded straight up for each other). The middle portion of McDyess' career was wrecked by injuries but he played in all 82 games in 2006 and 2007 and only missed four games last year. He has developed an effective midrange jumper and is still a solid rebounder. He could potentially provide much needed frontcourt depth for Denver but it has been reported that he only wants to play for Detroit and will be seeking a buyout from the Nuggets; he could very well reach a settlement with Denver and end up right back in Detroit.
The Pistons are trying to squeeze out one more title with their veteran core while still retaining the ability to reload with young players without taking a huge step backwards; the Nuggets have finally realized that their mixture simply is not working and that they have to restructure their roster in order to be a viable Western Conference contender--but it is reasonable to wonder if this particular restructuring really represents a tangible improvement of the team's short term or long term prospects.
Coach Larry Brown led Detroit's core group of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton to an NBA title in 2004 and an NBA Finals appearance in 2005. Since Brown's departure after the 2005 season, the Pistons have made three straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances but have not returned to the NBA Finals. Ben Wallace signed with the Chicago Bulls after the 2006 campaign, leaving a hole in the middle of Detroit's interior defense that has yet to be filled. This summer, Joe Dumars replaced Coach Flip Saunders with assistant coach Michael Curry, so it is interesting that before Curry even had a chance to try to win a title with the remains of the 2004-05 core Dumars made such a drastic personnel change.
There are two primary reasons that the Pistons have not been back to the Finals:
(1) Flip Saunders is a very knowledgeable and solid NBA coach but he is not of the same caliber as Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win an NCAA championship (Kansas, 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit, 2004). More importantly, Detroit's players never respected Saunders the way that they respected Brown, so in tight situations each player had a tendency to do what he thought was right instead of the whole group following Saunders' lead. Brown emphasized defense and "playing the right way," while Saunders emphasized his so-called "liberation offense" and did not demand as much from the players as Brown did.
(2) Detroit's defensive dominance depended to a great extent on having Ben Wallace lurking in the paint as a weakside shotblocker. Rasheed Wallace was a secondary shotblocker and having those two players patrolling the lane allowed Prince, Billups and Hamilton to play very aggressive perimeter defense. The absence of Ben Wallace had a chain reaction effect: Rasheed Wallace was now asked to do more defensively and then someone else had to step in to fill his previous role. The problem is that Rasheed Wallace is simply not as good at Ben Wallace's role as Ben Wallace was and none of Rasheed Wallace's replacements could fill his role, so the domino effect was a serious weakening of Detroit's defense. Did this show up in regular season numbers? Not necessarily, because the Pistons can beat a lot of teams in the NBA based on talent alone. However, in the playoffs against elite teams it became obvious that the Pistons were not as good as they had been in 2004 and 2005. LeBron James drove down the lane repeatedly in the 2007 playoffs versus Detroit without Ben Wallace present as a deterrent. The 2008 Boston Celtics dominated the Pistons in the paint in the Eastern Conference Finals. Is Detroit's goal to perform well in the regular season in a bunch of statistical metrics of defense or to be able to consistently get stops against elite teams in the playoffs?
A third, lesser problem for the Pistons is that the decline in their defense placed a bigger strain on their offense. The "liberation offense" was supposed to be the answer for that but throughout Saunders' tenure the Pistons went through key stretches in playoff games when they struggled to score or even get off good shots. Brown's Pistons may not have been an offensive juggernaut but they were a lot better defensively than Saunders' teams and when they really needed a score they could rely on Brown to call one of their precision offensive sets that they would execute very efficiently. Saunders gave his players the freedom to do what they wanted offensively but this just led to lack of discipline and poor execution.
It remains to be seen how much of an upgrade--if any--Coach Curry will be over Coach Saunders. McDyess started 78 games for the Pistons last year, so by shipping him out Dumars is showing great confidence that young big men like Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson are ready to be significant contributors. It is highly unlikely that the Pistons will be able to replicate the suffocating defense that they played when the two Wallaces guarded the paint.
So, what all of this means is that the Pistons are hoping that their defense will not slip any further and that Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and for his teammates will result in fewer offensive droughts come playoff time. Billups earned the nickname "Mr. Big Shot" during the Pistons' glory years but he seems to have slowed down a bit in recent seasons. He is a solid playmaker but not really someone who breaks down defenders off of the dribble. In contrast, Iverson is a dynamic offensive player who has not only averaged at least 26 ppg for the past 10 seasons but has also averaged 6.3 apg during his career, nearly a full assist per game more than Billups has averaged. Iverson is perceived as a ball hog but he is a skilled, creative passer and he has proven that he is willing to give up the ball--for example, in game seven of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals versus Toronto, Iverson had a playoff career-high 16 assists in an 88-87 Philadelphia victory. Earlier in that series, Iverson had several huge scoring games--including a pair of 50-plus point outbursts--but that game seven passing display showed that he is willing and able to make teams pay for double-teaming him. The Pistons have several players who are capable of making open shots, so down the stretch in games opposing teams will now have to choose between guarding Iverson one on one or trapping him and hoping that Iverson's teammates do not convert their open opportunities. Billups has never really been a player who has to be double-teamed--except maybe on the post in certain matchups--and that is one reason that the Pistons' offense has bogged down in crucial late moments of playoff games.
Iverson is more than a year older than Billups but Iverson "seems" younger and fresher. I have repeatedly said that Iverson is the most amazing athlete that I have ever seen in person--he is not the greatest basketball player I have ever seen but for someone who is very charitably listed at 6-0, 165 to be as productive as he has in the NBA is truly amazing. Iverson has led the NBA in mpg seven times, including a 41.8 mpg average last year. Only Wilt Chamberlain (nine times) has led the NBA in mpg more often than Iverson and Chamberlain was more than a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Iverson. Iverson's shot selection and shooting percentages offend both fans and "stat gurus" but he is durable, he is a productive scorer and passer and in 2001 he proved that he can be the best player on an NBA Finalist.
Chemistry and complacency are also factors here. In recent years, the Pistons have played as though they think that they are entitled to receiving a free pass back to the NBA Finals. Say what you will about Iverson but he competes and plays hard every night. Perhaps this shakeup will help the Pistons to regain the edge--and edginess--that they have been missing.
OK, you are thinking, that all sounds good but what if this doesn't work? What if the Pistons again fail to make it to the NBA Finals? Any time a trade is made it is important to consider the financial ramifications. Iverson is in the final year of his contract. That means that the Pistons will try to make one title run with this group but if this does not work out for whatever reason then they can let Iverson walk and thus gain a lot of salary cap flexibility; the Pistons could therefore potentially make a run at signing LeBron James and/or other free agents. The funny thing is that it seems like half the teams in the league are dreaming that they can make a run at LeBron James but Dumars understands that even if he cannot sign James he could still use the salary cap space to add a legitimate franchise player to build around.
I know that the "stat gurus" will love this deal for Denver; they consider Iverson to be vastly overrated and therefore will say that the Nuggets won this trade from a talent standpoint even if McDyess is cut loose. I admire and respect Billups' game and what he has accomplished in the NBA. He is a better one on one defender than Iverson and by virtue of his body type Billups can play a more physical game than Iverson--but Iverson is a more dynamic and explosive player and therefore a more difficult challenge for opposing teams to guard. While it is true that Iverson's departure will give Carmelo Anthony and other players more opportunities to shoot, it is not clear exactly how this will make Denver a significantly better team. Denver's problems largely reside at the defensive end of the court. Simply replacing Iverson with Billups will not make that much difference defensively, especially since the Nuggets previously lost the services of Marcus Camby. If Anthony can now challenge LeBron James for the scoring title and J.R. Smith increases his scoring average to 20 ppg will Denver be markedly improved?
It is not clear what exactly Denver's plan is. If the Nuggets had retained Iverson's services for one more year then they could have let him walk and received the same salary cap benefit that the Pistons now have the opportunity to get next summer. The Nuggets certainly are not going to win a title with Billups this year and they probably will not even make the playoffs. So what is the point of giving the Pistons the chance to acquire more salary cap space in exchange for receiving Billups' contract, which runs through 2011 with a team option for 2012? I don't understand how this trade either helps the Nuggets win now nor how it will help them build a team that can win in the future. Even if the Nuggets far exceed any reasonable expectations and win one playoff series this year, is that worth losing the salary cap flexibility that Iverson's expiring contract provided? The Nuggets need a bona fide young star to pair with Anthony and they need to develop a team-wide understanding of the importance of defense.
Both teams are taking a risk but that is true of any deal: players can always get hurt, lose motivation or not mesh with their new teammates. The upside for Detroit is the possibility that Iverson will add a new dynamic offensively that will enable the Pistons to return to the Finals; failing that, the team will now have the salary cap flexibility to add a young star. The risk/reward balance for Detroit is pretty good. The upside for Denver is the possbility that Billups' better man to man defense against point guards is worth a few wins and that the other players will be happier and more productive because they will inherit Iverson's shot attempts but even in the best case scenario it is hard to picture Denver advancing past the first round. So what happens after this year? The downside for Denver is that it is entirely possible that the team will not perform better at all or will not improve enough to even make the playoffs. The risk/reward balance for Denver is not very good at all.
The New Orleans Hornets sometimes ask selected writers to contribute a "Rival Report" about a team that the Hornets are about to face. The Hornets requested my permission to use my Cavs blogger preview as their "Rival Report" for Saturday's game against Cleveland and I agreed; they also used my preview as a "Rival Report" in each of the more than 10,000 game programs provided to fans at the game. Here is a link to my online "Rival Report" about the Cavs:
Rebuilt Pacers Pound Celtics in Rousing Home Opener
Danny Granger scored 20 points and T.J. Ford added 19 points and four assists while not committing a single turnover as the new look Indiana Pacers beat the Boston Celtics 95-79 in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 18,165 at Conseco Fieldhouse; the Pacers set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a home opener. The Pacers were without the services of Mike Dunleavy--who started all 82 games for them last year--and they lost starting center Rasho Nesterovic to an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter when the Celtics were still within striking distance. The Celtics hurt themselves by committing 24 turnovers, shooting just 27-78 (.346) from the field and making just 21-35 (.600) free throws but--as Boston Coach Doc Rivers freely admitted after the game--the Pacers have to be given a share of the credit for forcing Boston to shoot poorly from the field and mishandle the ball. Kevin Garnett led the Celtics with 18 points and a game-high 14 rebounds but he also committed a game-high six turnovers. Paul Pierce finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he shot just 3-15 from the field and 7-12 from the free throw line. Ray Allen had a quiet 10 points and six rebounds; he and Pierce also had four turnovers apiece.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, a mediocre Indiana Pacers team played in front of a half deserted Conseco Fieldhouse that had all the vitality and energy of a mausoleum. That is why Pacers President Larry Bird and newly promoted General Manager David Morway retooled the roster this summer; seven of the 15 players who are on the team now were not on the 2007-08 opening night roster. The Pacers fought hard but lost 100-94 in their season opener on Wednesday in Detroit and now they have knocked off the defending NBA champions. When Indiana's lead swelled to 20 points in the fourth quarter, the team received an enthusiastic standing ovation from a crowd that has been starving to see good basketball from their beloved Pacers.
Many NBA analysts and fans are sleeping on the Pacers--the consensus at ESPN is that the Pacers will finish 12th in the 15 team Eastern Conference--but in my 2009 Eastern Conference Preview I wrote, "Most people seem to expect Indiana to be terrible this year but the Pacers only missed the playoffs by one game. They sent Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto in exchange for T.J. Ford, a point guard who will be able to push the ball up the court and feed the team's many three point shooters. I think that the Pacers will surprise a lot of people but in the end they will probably once again fall just short of the playoffs." Obviously, one home opening win does not a season make and the Celtics will most likely finish at least 20 games ahead of the Pacers this season but the Pacers are certainly good enough to challenge for the eighth playoff spot.
Last season, Boston started to make me a believer after I watched in person as the Celtics played hard on every possession and ground out a 101-86 win at Indiana. Later, I had the opportunity to see the Celtics in person during their Eastern Conference playoff showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Win or lose, in each of those games the Celtics played harder and with more focus than they did versus Indiana tonight. When Coach Rivers emerged from the locker room to do his postgame standup, he looked at the gathered media horde and said with a wry grin, "You waited around for this?" That reminded me of the old story that has been told about a basketball coach who was so disgusted by his team's performance that he tried to get thrown out of the game but the referee would not eject him, saying, "If I have to watch this then you do, too." Rivers was not happy with any aspect of how his team played: "We were bad all game. Turnovers, sloppy play, missed free throws--but give Indiana credit. I thought that Jim had them prepared. They played hard, they were fired up for the game. They had fresh legs, clearly, but we have to be mentally tougher. We got in late but we just didn't play well in any aspect of the game and it was amazing that in the third quarter we were only down by nine or 10. It was a miracle but we didn't deserve to win that game."
Someone asked Coach Rivers the question that he will probably hear before and after every game (you can see the slightly different version of it that I asked Rivers before the game in Notes From Courtside): how will the team respond now that every other team in the league will be playing their best game against the Celtics, particularly at home? Rivers candidly answered, "I don't know the answer. I just don't know yet. We'll find that out. Tonight, one thing we're going to learn is that we cannot come out flat because every night we are going to get every team's best (effort). On those flat nights we are going to get our butts whipped and that is what happened tonight."
As for Indiana's prospects, Rivers declared, "I love what they've done. Number one, the character of their basketball team is up. You win with character--and they can play. I just like their team and what they've done. To do that in one summer is pretty impressive."
Casual NBA fans may not know much about Granger, who I singled out over the summer as one of the most underrated players in the league. Rivers is also impressed by Granger: "He's a good player. People don't know who he is yet but they will soon. He's a terrific basketball player. It seems like he's a really good kid--I don't know that because I don't know him but it comes off that way. On the floor, you can see how his teammates respond to him. I think that by moving some of the older guys out and different guys out, it's kind of in some ways become his team and the other players accept that and that's a really good thing."
Pierce literally cooled out in front of his locker after the game: with ice packs on his knees, he tried to explain why Boston lost: "There are a lot of things we didn't do well but Indiana did what they had to do and I give a lot of credit to them. They really executed their game plan. They made their run. We didn't match their energy. It was a tough shooting night for us and we turned the ball over. I thought we played pretty good defense for the most part but in the third quarter we gave up too many layups. We have to expect every team's best, especially on the road in their home opener. I thought we really got caught up in yelling at the referees and we lost our composure."
Pierce was understandably low key as he answered various questions but he managed to find some humor in the situation when someone asked him if Boston's free throw problems are "contagious." Pierce chuckled and replied, "I don't think it's contagious. I mean, it's not like it's a disease. Just because I miss them that doesn't mean everybody else is going to miss them."
Ray Allen had a very pragmatic, matter of fact perspective about the loss: "We're turning the ball over, which takes away a possession from ourselves and then we get an opportunity to score (free throws) with the clock not moving we're not knocking those down, so we were digging ourselves a hole every which way. It's very unlike us and we look forward to playing the next game."
Allen refused to use the Celtics' 4 a.m. arrival in Indiana as an explanation for the team's flat performance. He smiled and said, "We've been doing this for a long time. There are no excuses associated with something that every team in the league has to go through."
***************************** Notes From Courtside:
Three-time NBA champion Sam Cassell is kind of a player/assistant coach for the Celtics this season. He is on the 15 man roster but was not part of the 12 man active roster for this game. However, he was quite active in the pre-game warmups, playing a spirited one on one game with Brian Scalabrine. After some fans and courtside personnel started watching, both players played to the crowd a bit. Scalabrine called traveling on Cassell, who appealed that verdict by asking the people on the sidelines; the consensus was that Cassell definitely shifted his pivot foot, so Cassell shook his head but gave the ball to Scalabrine. Cassell kept Scalabrine off balance by alternating pullup jumpers with drives to the hoop, while Scalabrine showed off some dribbling moves and fadeaway jumpers that he certainly will not be using in live action any time soon. I watched them for a few minutes before leaving to go to Coach Rivers' pregame standup but we all found out the result when Cassell bounded into the hallway and shouted, "Hey, Doc! I'm ready, baby" before going into the locker room. Rivers laughed and then explained, "That means he won the one on one game." When I mentioned that Cassell had been playing Scalabrine, Rivers added, "Sam beat him yesterday, too. Sam's good at that." Apparently, this is an ongoing friendly grudge match. I remember that years ago Danny Ferry and Bobby Phills--who both played for the Cavaliers at the time--used to often play one on one in pre-game warmups.
Although Cassell is not part of the regular 12 man rotation, Rivers said, "He's important to our team and I think that he's going to help us on the floor in certain games as well. Obviously, late in the year is far more important to me with Sam than now. We'll activate him on certain nights just to get him game experience, just to play him. That will be later in the year...He reminds me of what Kevin Millar was for the Red Sox. He keeps things loose yet serious and he's able to say things to players that I probably couldn't say."
I asked Rivers, "Last year at this time, at least in the outside world, there were doubts and questions about how all of this would work out. This year you are clearly in the position of the hunted and being looked at as the favorite. How does that affect your attitude or your decision making process?"
He replied, "It doesn't change us at all. As far as we're concerned--and I've said it before--last year is last year and this year is this year. You know, this is not boxing. In boxing, when you lose the championship you have to give the belt back; in basketball you get to keep the trophy. So, the trophy we earned last year is our trophy. We don't have to defend that trophy. That's our mindset. We're trying to win a new trophy, so as far as we're concerned we may be the hunted but we're hunting again as well and that's got to be our philosophy all year."
I followed up by asking, "Do you have an advantage this year from the standpoint that you did win a championship, so now you know that the group can do it and there are not questions about that?"
Rivers answered, "Well, it's a different group but I hope so. Clearly, they have confidence from having done it and the way we won it--there has never been a harder way because we played more games to win it than anyone else. That has to help us. But, we also understand that because we won it every team is going to give us their best effort every night, so that's a task in itself."
Boston's poor free throw shooting is not just a one game phenomenon. Before the game, Rivers said, "Overall, if there is a big negative on our team now it is that we have to make free throws. We work on them but you can't mock a game situation in practice."
After the game, some of the Boston reporters spoke at length with Ray Allen--whose .889 career free throw percentage ranks seventh in NBA history--about the team's free throw woes. One of them asked Allen how many free throws he shoots each day and Allen said that on a typical game day he generally attempts about 75 free throws but not all at once; he shoots five to 10 free throws after each drill. As I said about LeBron James' pregame shooting routine, the best way to try to replicate game situations is to work up a sweat and then shoot some free throws, so it is not surprising that Allen's regimen is structured that way. James shoots about .700 from the free throw line in games and, not surprisingly, shot about .700 when I watched him practice before the Charlotte game on Thursday. So, I told Allen that I understand that he obviously wants to make every free throw but I asked him what is his realistic benchmark for free throw percentage for his 75 practice free throws and he immediately replied, "I expect 90. Above 90." In response to an earlier question, he also explained the proper approach to take when working on this skill: "Now that we know the situation that we have missed free throws, each man on the team really has to focus in every time we get the opportunity to practice free throws...You go through a routine with your body and try to stay connected with the free throw. It's easy to shoot free throws laughing and joking but you've got to have a serious nature when you shoot."
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan