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

Friday, November 21, 2008

D'Antoni on Marbury: "My Vision of the Team is on a Different Track"

During John Thompson's TNT interview with Mike D'Antoni, the Knicks Coach uttered the understatement of the year when explaining why shoot first (and second and third, with the fourth option being dribbling until he can shoot) point guard Stephon Marbury has been exiled: "My vision of the team is on a different track...Steph is the type of player who you give the team--or a big part of the team--or nothing."

Remember how on "Star Trek" there was a "universal translator" that could translate any language? If we put D'Antoni's comments into the "basketball universal translator" then we discover that he simply chose a tactful way of saying, "Look, I'm trying to put together a team that plays hard, plays together and whose number one goal is winning games. I have absolutely no use for an uncoachable player who has delusions of grandeur and is entirely consumed by self centered objectives when he is on the court. We might not be able to trade Marbury but I sure as hell don't have to let him and his bad attitude anywhere near the team."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:38 AM


There is a Lot More to Derrick Coleman Than Points and Rebounds

Charles Barkley once said that the first time he saw Derrick Coleman play he thought that Coleman could become the greatest power forward ever; at 6-10, 230, Coleman could shoot, pass, rebound and defend. Coleman won the 1991 Rookie of the Year Award, made the All-Star team in 1994 and earned a pair of All-NBA Third Team selections but he obviously fell well short of becoming the greatest power forward of his time, let alone of all-time. Some people play basketball because they are consumed by a love for the game and that passion is translated into a furious, relentless work ethic that leads to them maximizing their potential; other people play basketball because they are tall and athletic but they don't have that burning desire to focus on nothing but the sport. Coleman averaged 16.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg in a 15 year NBA career, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but it is not surprising that he recently told Sports Illustrated's Selena Roberts, "I didn't have a hard time (leaving). I don't miss playing the game."

What may surprise you, though, is why Coleman does not miss the NBA life and what Coleman has been doing with his money since he retired: Coleman has spent more than $6 million on Coleman's Corner, a brick and stucco strip mall on the west side of Detroit, his home town. Coleman Center is the first retail center built in that area since the 1967 riots gutted that portion of the city. When Coleman grew up, west side retail establishments all had bars, steel shutters and bullet resistant glass. Coleman recalls, "As a kid I got tired of talking to people through glass. Why can't I have a conversation with you without talking through glass?" It has always been his dream/plan to revitalize Detroit and he is most definitely putting his money where his mouth is.

Check out Roberts' must-read story about the second act of Coleman's life; after you read it, you will have a totally different perspective about someone who you once may have mocked or disdained:

A Whoop-dee-damn-do-gooder

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:21 AM


Thursday, November 20, 2008

2008-09 NBA Leaderboard, Part I

The inaugural edition of the 2008-09 Leaderboard mainly consists of the "usual suspects" but there are a few surprising names that have surfaced.

Best Five Records

1) L.A. Lakers, 8-1
2) Boston Celtics, 10-2
3) Cleveland Cavaliers, 9-3
4-5) Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, 8-3

No one can be too surprised that last year's Finalists are at the top of the heap--both teams retained their core players (other than Boston losing James Posey) and the Lakers actually got significantly deeper with the "acquisitions" of Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza. The Cavaliers started slowly last year due to injuries and holdouts but with all hands on deck plus the addition of Mo Williams they are without question an elite, championship contending team. Since trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, the Pistons tagged the Lakers with their first--and, so far, only--loss and then ended Cleveland's eight game winning streak. Orlando is right on schedule as one of the East's top teams. Utah, Phoenix and Denver are each 8-4; the Jazz have had to battle through some injuries, the Suns have picked up where they left off at the end of last season before the Spurs broke their hearts in the playoffs and the Nuggets have--as usual--beaten up on some sub-.500 teams (Clippers, Grizzlies, Bobcats, Timberwolves, Bucks). Notably absent are the New Orleans Hornets, who are 5-5 despite Chris Paul's fine play and eyepopping assist numbers; perhaps the problem is that assists can be padded in the boxscore but wins cannot (I still consider Paul to be the best point guard in the league, even if his assist total is likely inflated by 15-20%).

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) LeBron James, CLE 29.5 ppg
2) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.2 ppg
3) Chris Bosh, TOR 25.5 ppg
4) Joe Johnson, ATL 25.3 ppg
5) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 24.7 ppg
6-7) Kobe Bryant, LAL 24.3 ppg
6-7) Danny Granger, IND 24.3 ppg
8) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 23.3 ppg
9) Tim Duncan, SAS 22.8 ppg
10-11) Vince Carter, NJN 22.6 ppg
10-11) Al Jefferson, MIN 22.6 ppg

13) Kevin Durant, OKC 21.5 ppg

15) Paul Pierce, BOS 21.1 ppg
16) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.0 ppg

18) Chris Paul, NOR 20.7 ppg

24) O.J. Mayo, MEM 20.1 ppg

LeBron James won his first scoring title last year and it's a safe bet that it was not his last. Some numbers to keep in mind are 10, 7 and 4: Michael Jordan holds the all-time record with 10 scoring titles, Wilt Chamberlain won seven (all of them in a row, which is a record) and George Gervin and Allen Iverson each captured four scoring titles. It will be interesting to see just how far James can move up that list. What Jordan did was amazing and then you have to remember that he could easily have won two more scoring titles if he had not played baseball in 1994 and 1995, plus he missed most of the 1986 season with a broken foot.

Dwyane Wade has picked up right where he left off during the Olympics, driving to the hoop with authority.

Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson are both very good players but I suspect that neither will be in the top five in scoring by the end of the season; look for Kobe Bryant to settle into the third spot by the end of December and to remain there (unless Wade gets hurt and misses a lot of games).

I've heard some people going nuts about O.J. Mayo, just like some people went overboard about Kevin Durant last season. O.J. Mayo can shoot and he can score--but is he above average in any other skill set category? He is doing exactly what I predicted that he would do: score a lot of points while not having much of an impact in other statistical areas. Mayo repeatedly proclaimed that he can play point guard but he ranks third on the Grizzlies with 2.4 apg despite leading the team in minutes played and averaging 13 more mpg than any other guard on the roster.

As for Durant, his shooting has improved a bit--continuing a trend that began at the end of last season--but he is not making much of a contribution as a rebounder, passer or defender. During a recent ESPN telecast, Jeff Van Gundy expressed surprise and disappointment that Durant has not developed into a more well rounded player. Of course, 20 Second Timeout readers know that I predicted this outcome before Durant played a single regular season game.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Andris Biedrins, GSW 14.6 rpg
2) Dwight Howard, ORL 13.5 rpg
3) Zach Randolph, NYK 12.5 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.7 rpg
5) Chris Bosh, TOR 11.0 rpg
6) Chris Kaman, LAC 10.8 rpg
7) Elton Brand, PHI 10.5 rpg
8) Andrew Bogut, MIL 10.5 rpg
9) Al Jefferson, MIN 10.3 rpg
10) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.3 rpg
11) Pau Gasol, LAL 10.1 rpg

14-15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.8 rpg
14-15) Rasheed Wallace, DET 9.8 rpg

16-17) Yao Ming, HOU 9.5 rpg
16-17) Jermaine O'Neal, TOR 9.5 rpg

19) Andrew Bynum, LAL 8.9 rpg

24) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg

27) LeBron James, CLE 7.8 rpg
28) Shaquille O'Neal, PHX 7.8 rpg

40) Jason Kidd, DAL 7.1 rpg

Andris Biedrins has a significant lead over last year's champion, Dwight Howard. Some people may have thought that Zach Randolph would not fit it with Mike D'Antoni's system but even teams that play small and push the ball up the court quickly need to have at least one big guy who rebounds; Randolph and Biedrins are filling that role for their teams.

Rasheed Wallace's rebounding average is far above his career high (8.2 rpg in 2002 and 2005), so look for that number to start moving south pretty soon.

Jason Kidd continues to outrebound many frontcourt players and he has lapped the field at his position with Chris Paul ranking a distant second (5.0 rpg).

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.9 apg
2) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.8 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.3 apg
4) Baron Davis, LAC 8.0 apg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.8 apg
6) Steve Nash, PHX 7.5 apg
7) Chris Duhon, NYK 7.2 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 6.9 apg
9) Rajon Rondo, BOS 6.7 apg
10) Stephen Jackson, GSW 6.5 apg

Here are the early returns on the question of whether Steve Nash "made" Mike D'Antoni or Mike D'Antoni's system "made" Steve Nash: Nash's apg average has dropped from 11.1 apg last season to 7.5 apg, while Chris Duhon's apg average has increased from 4.0 apg last season to 7.2 apg. Nash never averaged more than 8.8 apg before playing for D'Antoni or less than 10.5 apg while playing for him, while Duhon's previous career high was 5.0 apg. Based on these early returns, it would appear that playing for D'Antoni is "worth" 2-3 apg for a starting point guard. The really interesting question is whether D'Antoni truly makes his point guards better or simply employs a system that enables his point guards to accumulate more impressive statistics. I've always liked Nash's game and I thought he was underrated before he arrived in Phoenix but after a few years of putting up 10-plus apg for D'Antoni I thought that Nash became a bit overrated--at least in the sense that he should not have been winning MVPs over Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The emergence of Duhon as a top ten assist guy and the simultaneous regression of Nash's assist numbers to their pre-D'Antoni levels is yet another indication that apg averages should not be the sole or primary method for evaluating passing ability, let alone determining a player's overall value.

Along the same lines, I believe that Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league and you could certainly make the case that he is the best passer--but is he 26% better as a playmaker than anyone else, as his apg numbers suggest? That is obviously ludicrous. Assist numbers are heavily dependent on the kind of system that a player plays in and are also subjectively awarded at times.

As a final note, it is interesting that Stephen Jackson has replaced Baron Davis as the Warriors' playmaker, following in the tradition of Don Nelson's Milwaukee "point forward" Paul Pressey, who averaged more than 7 apg for three straight seasons and ranked seventh in the NBA in total assists in the 1985-86 season.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:47 PM


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gasol, Bryant Lead the Way as Lakers Stampede Past the Bulls

Pau Gasol scored a season-high 34 points on 14-21 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers beat the Chicago Bulls 116-109 to improve their league-leading record to 8-1. Kobe Bryant added 21 points, a team-high six assists, five rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots, while Andrew Bynum contributed 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Bryant twice drove to the hoop, drew the defense and then fed Gasol a behind the back pass for an easy dunk, including a first quarter move in which Bryant split the trap a la Mark Price before penetrating into the lane and passing to Gasol; Bryant also had several feeds to Gasol and Bynum that were not assists because they resulted in free throw attempts instead of made baskets.

Derrick Rose led the Bulls with 25 points and a game-high nine assists. It is obviously very early in the season but Rose has impressed me more than any other rookie so far: he can shoot, pass and rebound, his defense is adequate--particularly for such a young, inexperienced player--and he plays at his own tempo, not allowing other players to force him to slow down or speed up. Rose is very quick, handles the ball well and has already mastered his own variation of the teardrop shot used by penetrating guards as diverse as Mark Jackson and Tony Parker. Point guard is probably the toughest position to play as a rookie, so Rose's performance so far is that much more impressive.

Ben Gordon scored a highly inefficient 23 points on 6-22 field goal shooting, including 3-11 from three point range. Is his salary based on field goal attempts per minute? Gordon would actually be a great sixth man for a strong team that could control his minutes and shot selection but injuries to other players have forced him into a starting role for the Bulls and that is less than ideal because he is an undersized shooting guard who is not a great ballhandler or defender.

Gasol scored 18 of his points in the first quarter, becoming the first Laker other than Kobe Bryant to have that many points in a quarter since Shaquille O'Neal scored 18 points in a quarter in a March 21, 2003 game versus Boston. The Lakers exploited the obvious size advantage they enjoyed with Gasol and Bynum matching up against Drew Gooden and Joakim Noah; Gasol scored 13 of the Lakers' first 15 points. Bryant did not score a point in the first quarter and despite Gasol's outburst the Lakers only led 30-29, a score that is not good for L.A. for two reasons: the Lakers gave up far too many points and they were only up by one point at home against an inferior team. The Lakers played poor defense on several possessions--giving up wide open jumpers and, even worse, easy layups--and they also blew several point blank scoring opportunities at the front of the rim; if they had been a little sharper the score could easily have been 40-21 in their favor.

Sometimes it is hard to figure out what--if anything--Lamar Odom is thinking about. He had good boxscore numbers (10 points, eight rebounds, five assists) but fouled out after only playing 22 minutes. At the start of the second quarter he missed a layup, grabbed the rebound, made the putback--and then grabbed the ball and shot another layup, earning a delay of game warning. That did not have an effect on the outcome of the game but could have been a critical gaffe if it happened in the second half of a close contest; a second delay of game call is a one shot technical foul. Also, teams like to preserve that first delay of game call in order to use it to get a look at the opposing team's inbounds play late in the game and then stop the action before the inbounder passes the ball. Odom complained about every foul called on him even though most if not all of the fouls were obviously correct. This is why the Lakers are so much better off having him in a reserve role as opposed to perpetuating the dream that he could be Bryant's Pippen-like sidekick; the more that you have to rely on Odom on a game to game basis, the more you are going to be disappointed but as a reserve player the Lakers don't need as much out of him and on those occasions when he breaks out with a 20 point, 10 rebound game it will be icing on the cake.

Bryant took his usual rest at the start of the second quarter and when he returned to action at the 8:37 mark the score was tied at 36. In less than three minutes, he scored eight points as the Lakers went on a 15-2 run. The Lakers pushed their lead to 57-40 after Bryant's behind the back pass to Gasol for a dunk but then Gordon and Rose helped the Bulls close the half with a 16-4 run to pull within 61-56 at halftime.

At the start of the third quarter, Bryant again asserted control over the game, hitting a jumper and a three pointer to make the score 65-56. After Gasol missed a jumper, Bryant stormed into the lane and tipped the ball toward the basket; he missed the mark but kept the ball alive long enough for Bynum to reel it in and convert a three point play. Lakers' announcer Stu Lantz noted that Bryant receives no boxscore credit for that kind of hustle but Bynum would not have scored without Bryant's extra effort (a glance at the official play by play sheet actually shows that Bryant was credited with an offensive rebound and a missed field goal attempt). It is still early in the season but so far we are seeing that two of the themes that I repeatedly mentioned in the offseason were right on target: (1) Phil Jackson is not going to play Bynum, Gasol and Odom together at the same time because none of those players is a legit small forward; (2) Bynum is not a franchise-level center who creates his own offense but rather a young, athletic big man who rebounds and defends but whose offensive game at this stage mostly consists of catching lob passes, scoring on putbacks and occasionally using his developing repertoire of post moves. Bynum's minutes are up slightly compared to last season but his scoring average, field goal percentage and rebounding average have each declined (his shotblocking and turnover numbers have improved, though the latter can mainly be attributed to him not being relied on to do much more than dunk the ball). He is still rounding into shape after recovering from the injury that cost him the second half of last season but it should be obvious that he is not, as some laughably suggested, the best or most valuable player on the team.

After that initial Bryant-fueled burst to start the third quarter, the Lakers only managed to add three more points to their lead, enjoying a 90-74 advantage going into the final 12 minutes. Bryant was on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter and when the score reached 97-78 it seemed like his services might not be required for the rest of the night--but even with Gasol and Bynum on the court, the reserves were not able to maintain that comfortable margin. The Bulls cut the lead to 107-97 by the 3:50 mark--a very workable margin at that stage--and Bryant was forced to shed his warmups and finish the job. He came into the game with the Lakers on offense and seven seconds remaining on the shot clock and coolly drained a three pointer to let the Bulls know that playtime was over. The Bulls never cut the margin into single digits and a couple minutes later Bryant was able to go back to the bench. When a star player has sat out the first eight-plus minutes of the final quarter, you can be sure that his coach did not want to have to put him back in the game--but Phil Jackson understood just how tenuous the situation had become. I know that some people think that this Lakers' team would be very good even without Bryant but if you believe that then you need to focus more intently on two things: (1) How exactly Gasol, Bynum and others get wide open shots when Bryant is in the game; (2) how often large Lakers' leads shrink to dangerous levels when Bryant is on the bench. According to the definition of "clutch" used by "stats gurus" (less than two minutes remaining in a game that is closer than five points), Bryant's fourth quarter three pointer was not "clutch"--but that may have been the biggest possession of the game. If Bryant had not been brought back in and the Lakers failed to score, the Bulls would have been very much alive and would have had a ton of momentum. Although the Lakers have the best record in the NBA, several of those wins are directly attributable to Bryant either hitting a key shot like that and/or going on a scoring run at a key juncture--and Bryant's ability to consistently be productive at those important moments clearly demonstrates that he still has the same skill set that earned him last year's MVP and that, on lesser teams, enabled him to set numerous records while winning back to back scoring titles.

Interestingly, although Gasol was easily the highest scoring player in this game, his plus/minus number was just +1, while Bryant's plus/minus number was a game-high +22; incidentally, we can also see the limitations of looking at unadjusted plus/minus numbers by considering the fact that Vladimir Radmanovic--who was nearly invisible while scoring five points on 1-4 shooting--had the third best plus/minus number (+16) just because most of his minutes coincided with Bryant's. What Bryant has done so far this season is just lay in the cut, so to speak, as a scorer; he's not trying to go out and get 40 or 50 points and often he is hardly even attempting a shot in the first quarter as he surveys how the opposing team is defending him and sees which of his teammates may have the hot hand--but if and when things get tight or the Lakers hit a lull then Bryant drops about 10 points in a brief run, like a sniper picking off several targets in rapid succession and then calling it a day. I'm not sure which role is more difficult--sustaining production over a whole game to score 40 points (but also knowing that even if you miss some shots you are going to get up 25 or 30 attempts) or having the ability to seemingly turn your scoring off and on at will.

The Lakers played nine games in 23 days to start the season but will play six games in an 11 day stretch that started on Tuesday, so the upcoming week and a half will be an excellent test for them. They suffered their first loss of the season on Friday night versus Detroit and the most disturbing aspect of that game was how the Pistons pushed the Lakers' big men around, including a 10 point, 10 rebound performance by Kwame Brown, the former Lakers' starting center who has been thrust into a temporary starting role for Detroit due to injuries. Brown outplayed Bynum and Rasheed Wallace had his way with Gasol in a game that surely reminded Lakers' fans of how the Celtics overpowered Gasol in the NBA Finals; no one can question that Gasol is a very skilled player but he still has to prove that he has the necessary mental and physical toughness to be a key contributor on a championship level team--I had thought that he passed that test last year versus Utah and San Antonio in the Western Conference playoffs but Gasol had a setback against Boston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shaq Rewrites History, Blames Phil Jackson

Shaquille O'Neal once said that NBA stands for "nothing but actors" and his latest comments prove that to be true. Remember all the feuding that he did with former teammate Kobe Bryant? It sure seemed real at the time but O'Neal now insists that it was all part of a mind game by Phil Jackson to motivate both players. In an interview with Scott Howard-Cooper of the Sacramento Bee, O'Neal declared:

It's just that I'd say stuff, he'd say stuff. I think it was all designed by Phil (Jackson). Because if you think about it, Phil never called us into the office and said, "Both of you all, shut the (heck) up." Never did that in four years. He knew that when I read something, I was going to get upset. And he knew Kobe was going to always come out and play hard. So I think it was all done by design...He never called us in a meeting and said, "Shut up." And basically, it was never a face-to-face...thing. It was always, he'd say something to you, I'd say something to another guy, I'd say something to you. That's all it was...Now that I look back on it, that (stuff) was kind of fun. It really was. It was kind of fun. "What did he say, what did he say?" I tell people if we would have had a reality show, we'd have had the No. 1 reality show in the world. It was fun. It was actually fun. (Brian) Shaw would be, "Oh, man, why did you say that?" And then Karl (Malone) would be like, "Yo, that was (messed) up what you said." Then we'd try to outdo each other in the game.

But while we were trying to outdo each other, the two best players in the game, we're outdoing everyone by far. (Heck), if he was open in the lane, I wasn't going to say, "(The heck with) you, Kobe." I would still drop it off. But it was actually fun. And not only was it fun, we'll always be remembered as the best Laker one-two punch. I'm going on record saying we're the best Laker guard-center punch. You heard it from me. Ever.

As for the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West duo (which was really a trio that included Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich), O'Neal said, "I don't know what they did. I don't know how many championships they won." So much for O'Neal's (self-proclaimed) knowledge of the history of the game and its greatest big men; in 1971-72, the Lakers set the all-time record with 33 straight wins (an achievement that was in the news again last season during the Rockets' 22 game winning streak), won a then-record 69 games and beat the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. O'Neal also dismissed the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-Magic Johnson duo: "What'd they get, five championships together? Pretty good. They were pretty good. But, hey. I'm going on record. This is my opinion. This is just me. Kobe and Shaq was the best, most exciting one-two punch in Lakers history. That's just me. Despite what went on or what you think went on. That's what I think."

O'Neal is right that regardless of what he or Bryant said about each other they worked well together on the court; neither player will ever have a more talented teammate or a teammate whose skill set is more complementary: a dominant big man and a great all-around perimeter player make for a perfect pairing. However, even if all the stuff that O'Neal and Bryant said about each other seems funny to O'Neal now, I don't believe for one second that it seemed funny back then--and I'll guarantee you that when Bryant publicly blasted O'Neal for not being in shape that was no laughing matter to Bryant.

Asked about O'Neal's comments, the L.A. Daily News reports that Bryant replied, "You're not getting anything out of me but plain vanilla. I'm not saying anything. I learned from my man Tiger. My mouth is locked." Derek Fisher, the only current Laker who was on the three championship teams with O'Neal and Bryant, was very amused by O'Neal's revisionist take and enjoyed a long laugh before saying, "That's my response." When Coach Jackson was told that O'Neal blamed "everything" on him, he wryly responded, "Even his (notoriously poor) free-throw shooting?" The Daily News article suggested that O'Neal is angling to return to the Lakers in 2010 after his contract with Phoenix expires but that is a misreading of what O'Neal said to Howard-Cooper. Here is the relevant exchange between O'Neal and Howard-Cooper:

Question: Could you see yourself having a final season in Los Angeles? I know you love it there. I know the relationship hasn't always been good with the team, but you've been saying a lot more nice things lately. Could you see yourself going in there in a situation that you play 16, 18 minutes a game?

Answer: I don't want to answer that now because it would be unfair to Mr. (Steve) Kerr (the Suns president). I don't want to answer that. But who knows. I don't like to think that far ahead, but anything could happen.

Q: Has it entered your mind, finishing your career as a Laker?

A: No. I always sit back and think, "Who's going to retire my jersey?" And I don't know, to tell you the truth. I don't know if it's going to be Orlando, L.A., Miami. I don't know.

There is a big difference between saying "anything could happen" and actively seeking to make something happen. The idea that O'Neal would finish his career in L.A. playing alongside Bryant as a backup to Andrew Bynum is too bizarre to take seriously.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:58 PM


Sam Cassell: A Student of the Game Evolves into A Teacher

I have always enjoyed watching Sam Cassell, in no small part because it is apparent that he takes very seriously what Steve Young would call the "craft" of playing his sport. Relative to top NBA players, Cassell never possessed great size, speed or jumping ability, yet he has always been able to get off--and make--his shot in pressure situations.

In his first two NBA seasons, Sam Cassell played a key role on Houston’s back to back championship teams; as a rookie in 1993-94, he ranked fourth on the team during the playoffs in assists and three pointers made. After Cassell’s third season in Houston, the Rockets traded him to Phoenix as part of the deal to acquire aging star Charles Barkley. That was the beginning of a nomadic odyssey around the league for Cassell, who ultimately played for three teams in the 1996-97 season alone (Suns, Mavs, Nets). In his only full season with the Nets (1997-98), Cassell blossomed into an All-Star caliber player, averaging 19.6 ppg (16th in the NBA) and 8.0 apg (10th in the NBA). During the 1999 lockout-shortened season, the Nets shipped Cassell to Milwaukee, where he helped the Bucks to reach the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals. Cassell ranked in the top ten the league in assists in 2000 (9.0 apg, 3rd) and 2001 (7.6 apg, 8th) and he averaged between 18.2 ppg and 19.7 ppg in each of his four seasons with Milwaukee. Cassell’s next stop was Minnesota as the Timberwolves continued to try to find the right pieces to fit around Kevin Garnett. Cassell and Latrell Sprewell proved to be excellent perimeter complements to Garnett’s game and the Timberwolves made it to the 2004 Western Conference Finals as Cassell enjoyed his most decorated NBA season, earning his only All-Star selection, his only All-NBA Second Team nod and placing 10th in MVP voting. The Timberwolves were not able to duplicate that success the next season and in 2005 Cassell was traded to the L.A. Clippers, who had not made the playoffs since 1997. With Cassell at the helm, the Clippers went 47-35—their best record since 1974-75, when the franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves--smashed Denver 4-1 in the first round and took Phoenix to seven games before bowing out in the second round. In 2006-07, injuries limited Cassell to 58 games and the Clippers missed the playoffs. Midway through the 2007-08 season, the Clippers bought out Cassell’s contract and he signed with the Boston Celtics, reuniting with Garnett and eventually winning a third championship ring 14 years after winning one as a Houston rookie. Cassell hit some big shots in spot duty for Boston—including back to back games of 20 and 22 points late in the regular season and a 10 point fourth quarter outburst in the first game of the Cleveland series—but this year Doc Rivers plans to use him sparingly in the regular season. In effect, Cassell has become a player-coach, a mentor on the practice court to the team’s younger players, including starting point guard Rajon Rondo.

I recently spoke with Cassell about a wide range of subjects, including the difference between winning a championship as a young player and as a veteran and how he developed the ability to be a consistent NBA scorer despite not being super athletic.

Friedman: "You won championship rings in your first two seasons and now you have won a ring as a veteran player. What is the difference in your perspective on winning a ring as a young player versus winning a ring as a veteran player?"

Cassell: "This ring I got recently with this team—I know what winning a championship is all about. When you win so early like I did, I didn’t understand the concept of winning a championship, what it meant—the grind, the struggles, the sweat, the tears, the blood, the injuries, you know what I’m saying? All of that is a part of it. What we accomplished last year was unbelievable for me because it’s 13 years since my last championship. Going through the whole struggle and not winning and then finally winning, that was big. I felt it. I felt it."

Friedman: "Did you almost go from having the attitude as a young player that you were going to win championships every year to wondering if you were going to get just one more before you have to retire?"

Cassell: "No doubt about it. Yeah. That’s what I thought. Is it possible I could win another one? Out there in L.A., the window of opportunity was closed. Not closing—it was closed. I got new breath with these guys and I jumped at the opportunity to come and be a part of this."

Friedman: "I interviewed Kenny Smith a while ago and he told me something very interesting about when you were teammates. He had a conversation with you when you were playing the same position and in competition for the same minutes and he told you that he would never be on the bench rooting for you to fail. What kind of impact did that have on you when a veteran player said something like that and how have you communicated that to the younger players who you have worked with since then?"

Cassell: "The advice that Kenny gave me was big. It definitely helped me to become the player that I am now. For instance, if Rajon (Rondo) is playing well and it is my opportunity to play and (Coach) Doc (Rivers) tells me to go sub in for Rajon, I’ll tell Doc, 'Let him play. Just let him play.' Like in game six (of the 2008 NBA Finals). I could have subbed for him but I said to Doc, 'He’s playing well. Let him play.' That’s what players on good teams do: sacrifice for each other for the betterment of the team. The team is the most important thing. On our team we have great individual ball players but they understand the team concept and that makes us even better."

Friedman: "You are not big for an NBA guard and you have never been a high flyer but you have the ability to post up other guards and are able to play down low even against players who are bigger than you. How did you develop that aspect of your game? How are you able to play on the block against players who are bigger and more athletic?"

Cassell: "I worked on it, first and foremost. It’s about making the game easier for me. That made the game easier. The closer you get to the basket, the higher your shooting percentages are; the farther away you get from the basket, the lower your percentages are. So, I learned that and I worked on it. I understood the concept of it."

Friedman: "What is the concept? If you are going against a player who is 6-6 and jumps better that you, most people would assume that that guy has an advantage against you. You must see an advantage from your perspective; what advantage do you see?"

Cassell: "Number one, I know how that guy is looking at me: he’s looking at me like I’m small and I won’t be able to get my shot off. I’m crafty with it; I pump fake and my whole thing is to shoot the ball when they don’t think that I’m going to shoot it, especially when I’m on the post."

Friedman: "So it is all about getting the defender out of rhythm."

Cassell: "Yeah. When I have the ball, I’m going to take the shot I want to take; I’m not going to take the shot that the defender wants me to take—then I’m playing into his hands. When I have the ball, I’m controlling the situation right now. If I want to take two dribbles, turn to the baseline, pump fake, pump fake again and then shoot it, that’s what I’m going to do. He’s not going to dictate what I’m going to do when I have the ball."

Friedman: "Do you think that a lot of times younger players or players who are gifted with a lot of athleticism kind of settle for shots and don’t have the mentality that you described?"

Cassell: "Yeah. You’ve got to learn it. When you’re young you think that you can jump over the world. The name of this game is putting the ball in the basket. That’s the name of this game—and how frequently and at what rate you can do it. It took me three years to understand how to do that. It took me three good years in this league to learn how to score, how to get a basket when I need to score."

Friedman: "So it was different than when you were in college and maybe didn’t think of the game in quite the same way. In college you simply had an athletic advantage over a lot of the players who you faced."

Cassell: "College cannot be compared to this. I breezed through college basketball. I didn’t average 20 points but I averaged 18 points two years in college but it wasn’t hard for me. Three guys on my team (Florida State) averaged at least 18 points a game (in 1993; Bob Sura and Doug Edwards were the other two players). It wasn’t hard for me to score points in college but when I got to the pros my first year I averaged seven points a night. My second year I averaged 10 points a night. By my third year I started to understand how to score the ball and how to be a complete ball player in this league."

Friedman: "Is that something you learn from veteran players or from coaches?"

Cassell: "It’s just on the job training. A guy can’t tell you how to score. You’ve got to understand it and go do it yourself."

Friedman: "Throughout your career, you’ve had the ability to take and make big shots. You don’t shrink from that. I think that there are some players in the league who don’t really want the ball in that situation. They may say that they do but you can see that when a screen is set for them they come off of it just a little bit slow so they’re not open."

Cassell: "Yeah."

Friedman: "How did you develop that mentality that you really want the ball in those situations?"

Cassell: "I had to because when I played in Houston I had great players on my team, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Those guys got double-teamed so I was left open. It was either take it and miss it or take it and make it."

Friedman: "You played in Houston with two future Hall of Famers and now on this team you are playing with three future Hall of Famers. What are some of the similarities and differences between the leadership styles of the main guys in Houston compared to the main guys in Boston?"

Cassell: "The guys in Houston were soft spoken. They led by example. They just went out and played the game. They weren’t critical. These guys (in Boston) are critical. Clyde and 'Dream' just played."

Friedman: "You played with Kevin Garnett when he won the MVP in Minnesota and you are playing with him again now. Outsiders might perceive him differently now because he won a championship but from your perspective has his game changed from then to now or is it just a matter of being in a better situation and having a better opportunity?"

Cassell: "Better situation and better opportunity. Put Paul Pierce and Ray Allen with us in Minnesota and we would have won a couple championships. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t go like that. So all three of those guys are blessed to have one another on the same team with Kendrick Perkins and Rajon—it’s a whole team. People are so fast to give those three guys all the credit but Leon Powe, myself, Eddie House, 'Baby,' Tony Allen, we understand the whole concept. Everybody might not like their role but they can respect their role. That’s what makes us successful."

Friedman: "Which player or players guarded you the toughest during your career?"

Cassell: "Eric Snow was a good defender. Craig Ehlo was a good defender at that time, long and lanky. Nate McMillan. Gary Payton, wow, Gary Payton was a tough defender at my position."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:30 AM


Coaching Legend Pete Newell Passes Away at the Age of 93

Most basketball fans under the age of 40 probably only know of Pete Newell as a mentor of post players at his renowned annual "Big Man" camp but during his Hall of Fame coaching career Newell won an NIT title (1949, University of San Francisco), an NCAA title (1959, California) and an Olympic championship (1960, Team USA), a coaching "triple crown" matched by only Bob Knight and Dean Smith. Newell, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 93, quit being a bench coach at the age of 44 because his doctors said that the stress was too much for him; the last game that he coached was Team USA's 90-63 gold medal game victory over Brazil in 1960. Prior to the 1992 Dream Team that featured 11 NBA stars, it could be argued that the 1960 squad was the greatest U.S. Olympic basketball team ever: Hall of Famers Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were on the roster. One interesting tidbit about Newell's career is that his teams beat John Wooden's teams the last eight times that they played; Wooden did not become known as the Wizard of Westwood until after Newell retired.

I first heard of Newell when I read David Halberstam's outstanding 1981 book "The Breaks of the Game." I was just a child trying to soak up as much information as I could about the history and strategies of the sport. Halberstam described how Kermit Washington--who later became infamous for throwing the punch that almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich--approached Newell and asked him to help him to become a better player, at the time an almost unheard of request from someone who had already made it to the NBA. Halberstam wrote about how ardently Washington wanted to improve his skill set and he described the thought process Washington went through before seeking help from Newell, who at the time worked in the Lakers organization (for whom Washington played at that time). Here is Halberstam's account of Newell's initial reaction to Washington's request ("The Breaks of the Game," pp. 267-268):

Newell in turn was astonished. In recent experience, no player in the league seemed willing to admit that he still had something to learn. Washington had picked the right time to approach Newell. He had left college coaching (where his teams, with less material, had regularly beaten John Wooden's UCLA teams) because he did not like the direction the game was taking--too much emphasis on recruiting, too little on coaching, too much on selling the school to the young men and too little on the young men selling themselves to the school. He did not like his job at the Lakers; when he talked basketball to Jack Kent Cooke, the owner, he was always being challenged by one of Cooke's cronies who knew nothing about basketball..."Why do you want to take lessons?" he had asked Washington. "Because I want to play like Paul Silas," Washington had answered, which was good enough; Paul Silas was an example of the best of the NBA players, a triumph of character and intelligence over pure athletic skill.

The individual big man skills tutoring that Newell did with Washington eventually evolved into an annual "Big Man" camp that attracted more and more players each summer until it got to the point that virtually every promising post player in the country received coaching from Newell.

When Washington's NBA career was in limbo in the aftermath of Washington's devastating punch that seriously injured Tomjanovich, Newell was one of the few people in the basketball world who maintained contact with him. Halberstam wrote ("Breaks," p. 275):

One day Washington showed up at Newell's door with a huge color television set. With it was a small plaque that said, FOR COACH PETE NEWELL, THANK YOU FOR MAKING ME A BETTER BASKETBALL PLAYER, KERMIT WASHINGTON. Pete Newell tried to turn down the gift but Washington insisted he keep it. He eventually relented and accepted it, partially because Washington seemed the loneliest young man he had seen in a long time.

Newell's reluctance to accept the TV was very typical; he ran his "Big Man" camp for more than three decades without receiving any compensation, explaining simply, "I owe it to the game. I can never repay what the game has given me." Many coaches speak wistfully of leaving the bench to simply be a teacher and an ambassador for the sport but then they are lured back into the fray either by love of competition or by a big dollar contract but it can be honestly said of Newell that he aspired to nothing more than to contribute to the sport by teaching the game to anyone who had the burning desire to improve--and there can be no higher calling than to so tirelessly and willingly share the gift of one's knowledge. The basketball world will miss Pete Newell but it will never forget him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:14 AM


Monday, November 17, 2008

Shaq, Redd Speak About Kobe in Sports Illustrated

A pair of unrelated articles in the November 10 issue of Sports Illustrated contain some interesting quotes about Kobe Bryant. In Dan Patrick's "Just My Type," the former SportsCenter anchor interviewed Shaquille O'Neal. Here are a few of those questions and answers:

Patrick: "O.K., if you're going to teach your kids how to play in the pivot, do you have them look at your footwork or Tim Duncan's?"

O'Neal: "No, I have them look at all the guards. I let them watch Kobe and T-Mac."

Patrick: "What is the part of Kobe's game that you say to your kids, 'Just watch what he does, nobody does that better'?"

O'Neal: "His ferocity."

Patrick: "Most intense player in the league?"

O'Neal: "Oh, yes, by far the best player in the league."

A Chris Mannix article titled "Redd State" talked about how Michael Redd is transforming his body and his game. New Milwaukee Coach Scott Skiles is trying to change the mindset of the Bucks. "People who watched the Bucks the last couple of years know that when the team got behind, [the players] caved in and took a loss," Skiles said. Teams tend to follow the mindset of their leader, so that is hardly a ringing endorsement of Redd. Indeed, Mannix quoted a scout who said of Redd's defense, "He's O.K. off the ball but you can go at him one-on-one." Skiles is challenging Redd to elevate his defensive game by assigning the sharpshooter to guard the opposing team's top perimeter player. To his credit, Redd has enthusiastically accepted this new role, reducing his weight and body fat so that he is in better condition to exert himself at both ends of the court. Redd's trainer said, "Michael was someone who relied on basketball to stay in shape and keep his legs strong." Of course, anyone who knows anything about sports and personal training realizes that you work out to get in shape to play basketball--you don't play basketball to get into shape. It is good that Redd has finally understood this. Mannix noted that part of the transformation of Redd's attitude took place as a result of playing for Team USA and observing up close the work ethic and practice habits of Kobe Bryant. Redd explained, "In our practices everybody wanted to stop everybody. But Kobe, man, he never took a possession off."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:29 PM