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Friday, November 28, 2008

Hornets Edge Nuggets, 105-101

The New Orleans Hornets defeated the Denver Nuggets 105-101 in the second half of TNT's Thanksgiving doubleheader. This game involved some interesting subplots and storylines.

1) I have written several times about questionable scorekeeping regarding assists, most recently in a post titled Smooth All-Around Performance by Paul Lifts Hornets Over Heat. One of the recurring themes when I have charted Chris Paul's assists is that he received credit for assists on plays when the recipient of his passes made several dribbles and/or fakes before shooting; an assist is only supposed to be awarded when a pass played an important role in creating the shot opportunity and not merely because it was the last pass before a shot was attempted. At the 6:31 mark of the first quarter of the New Orleans-Denver game, Paul passed to David West, who took two dribbles, made a jump stop and then hit a short jumper; in the previous games that I charted (all of which took place in New Orleans), Paul received assists on such plays but on this occasion he did not.

If the definition of an assist has been liberalized to include such passes, then all such passes should be deemed assists--not just passes thrown by certain players or passes thrown by certain players in their home arenas. Otherwise, this statistic loses meaning.

This is not about slamming Paul--who is of course not at all responsible for how his statistics are recorded--or some scorekeepers. All I am saying is that there should be a more consistent standard regarding exactly what an assist is and that standard should apply equally in all arenas and to all players. With the video technology that is available today it would not be that complicated for the league to monitor this and to make appropriate rulings when necessary; the NBA has stepped in on a few occasions when a generous home scorekeeper helped a player obtain a triple double by awarding a dubious late assist or rebound, so what I am suggesting is that instead of just looking at such "high profile" cases the league take advantage of technological advances to ensure that its statistical legacy is as accurate as possible.

The interesting subplot to all of this is that Paul only scored two points and was credited with just four assists in the first half but Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley both correctly noted during the halftime show that Paul was controlling the game (New Orleans led 52-46 at the time); Denver was frequently double-teaming Paul and he was accepting the trap, passing the ball and then the second pass out of the trap created open shots (just like Hubie Brown always preaches when he does a telecast). A more extreme example of this is the recent game in which college sharpshooter Stephen Curry was double teamed constantly; he simply stood in the corner, enabling his team to play four on three while he went scoreless for the first time in his collegiate career. Any player who is good enough to draw that much defensive attention is extremely valuable, even if the boxscore cannot prove it because he did not score; I have been saying this about Kobe Bryant for years: he impacts the game even on possessions when he neither shoots nor passses because his presence distorts the defense. Bryant is not the only NBA player who has that kind of impact but that aspect of his value is often overlooked in order to focus on his scoring prowess.

Down the stretch of the New Orleans-Denver game, Paul exploded for 13 points in the final 8:22--including a long three pointer at the 2:07 mark that tied the score at 92--so he did end up with good boxscore numbers (22 points, 10 assists) but Smith said afterwards that Paul's impact in the first half was just as significant as his impact in the second half. This is the kind of truth that "stats gurus" will have to find ways to quantify in order to accurately assign credit to players; there is a value to Paul's presence and unselfishness in the first half that is not recorded in the boxscore.

2) Carmelo Anthony scored 24 points on 8-13 field goal shooting but his overall scoring and shooting numbers have plummeted since Denver shipped out Allen Iverson in exchange for Chauncey Billups. Anthony's rebounding and assist totals are at career-high levels but one of the supposed advantages of playing with Billups instead of Iverson is that Billups would create higher percentage scoring opportunities for Anthony. Iverson has received a lot of public blame from various commentators for the recent decline in Richard Hamilton's scoring average and field goal percentage, so it seems strange to not apply a similar standard vis a vis Anthony and Billups. Perhaps these numbers are just an artifact of small sample sizes. Perhaps Anthony and Hamilton are simply getting used to playing with their new teammates and will soon be producing at their previous levels--but it makes no sense to say that Iverson has hurt Hamilton's offensive game unless one is willing to say exactly the same thing about Billups' impact on Anthony. The real problem here is that too many members of the media prefer to deal in stereotypes and stock characterizations as opposed to actually analyzing the game; Billups has been assigned the role of unselfish point guard, while Iverson has been assigned the role of shoot first player, even though reality is much more complex than that: Billups often takes the responsibility on himself to shoot the ball late in games, while Iverson has demonstrated the ability and willingness to pass to open teammates. Near the end of the New Orleans-Denver game, Billups attempted a tough three point shot with Denver trailing by three even though there was still enough time to try to score a quick two pointer and commit a foul; if Iverson takes that shot he would get killed in the media but when Billups tries it then this is an example of him trying to step up in the clutch (it is worth mentioning that Barkley said point blank that Billups took a bad shot).

When the Nuggets first acquired Iverson, the spin was that having another player on the court who demands a double team would free up Anthony's game and Denver would become an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Now the new story is that Iverson held back Anthony's game--though Anthony's offensive statistics while playing alongside Iverson suggest otherwise--but that Billups will help to create open shots for Anthony. It is funny how the same people who claim that Hamilton's catch and shoot game will not mesh well with Iverson's style completely ignore the fact that Anthony is a one on one player who creates his own shot, not a dependent player who spots up and waits to receive a pass. Frankly, it is more likely that Hamilton will ultimately benefit from Iverson's ability to break down defenses with speed and dribble penetration than that Anthony will shoot and/or score any better with Billups than he did with Iverson.

3) A lot of attention is being paid to the fact that Denver is 9-3 with Billups while Detroit is 5-5 with Iverson. This supposedly proves that Billups has helped Denver to become a better half court team and a more sound defensive unit while Iverson has allegedly damaged Detroit's delicate chemistry--but let's take a closer look at those records.

The Billups era in Denver started with three straight victories against teams that do not currently have winning records (Dallas, Memphis, Charlotte). Then came a loss against Cleveland, an impressive win at Boston, home victories versus Minnesota and Milwaukee and a win at San Antonio over a Spurs team without Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Denver lost on the road versus the Lakers, beat the Bulls and Clippers and then fell to the Hornets yesterday. The Nuggets are 5-1 at home with Billups but all five wins are against teams that are currently at or below .500.

In Iverson's first game with the Pistons, Detroit lost at New Jersey. Then the Pistons fell to the Celtics in Boston. Detroit next played four road games in six days, winning three of them, including one over the Lakers, the only defeat that the Western Conference Champions have suffered this year. In their last four games, the Pistons beat Cleveland, lost again to Boston, got blown out by Minnesota and then bounced back to rout the Knicks. The Minnesota loss at home is bad, no doubt about it, but over the course of an NBA season every team has some bad losses. Iverson's Pistons have played six of their 10 games on the road.

The Anthony-Iverson Nuggets piled up wins--even blowouts--against the weaker teams but they could never consistently beat the good teams. That is why they were always a low seeded team that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. The schedule has been a bit kinder to Denver than Detroit in the immediate aftermath of the trade but I see no reason to believe that the Nuggets are any more equipped to beat good teams now than they were previously.

The developing situation involving Iverson skipping practice on Thanksgiving could turn out to be significant or it could just end up creating one more Iverson soundbite to go along with the constantly replayed "We talkin' about practice." I suspect that after Iverson is disciplined this will not have a lasting effect. It will be interesting to compare Detroit and Denver's records after both teams have played a larger, more representative sample of their schedules.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:19 AM

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Durant is Back in his Comfort Zone at Small Forward

The most fascinating storyline in Oklahoma City, one that will have ramifications for years to come and could very well determine the future of the Thunder, concerns Kevin Durant. Shortly after the Thunder--then known as the Seattle SuperSonics--drafted Durant, Coach P.J. Carlesimo announced that he planned to shift Durant from forward to shooting guard and I immediately expressed skepticism:

Maybe some people have visions of Durant being the 21st century version of George Gervin, a slender forward who moved to guard early in his pro career and won four scoring titles--but there are some important differences to consider between Gervin and Durant. Gervin started his career at his natural position of forward and proved that he could rebound, draw fouls and even block shots, averaging 8.4 rpg, 6.3 FTA/g and 1.6 bpg in his first full ABA season (Gervin played just 30 games as a rookie after the Virginia Squires discovered him in the middle of the season while he was playing in the minor league Eastern Basketball Association). San Antonio Spurs Coach Bob Bass moved Gervin to guard late in Gervin's third season, after Gervin had already established himself as an All-Star forward.

Durant has not played one minute of regular season action in the NBA, yet even though he has been advertised as a great inside player his coach already wants him to switch positions. Carlesimo clearly wants to spare Durant from being pounded in the paint but the move to the backcourt will lead to other problems. To the best of my knowledge, Durant has never played guard; now he will have to learn how to do so against the best guards in the world. Also, from what I saw in the summer league, Durant has a very high dribble and is not a great ballhandler, so he will be a turnover waiting to happen if he is relied upon to do a lot of dribbling.

Durant clearly needs to put on some weight but that will be true regardless of which position he plays. I think that he and Seattle would be better served if he takes his lumps at his natural small forward position where he will at least be in the comfort zone of playing in areas of the court that are familiar to him.

It is interesting that the first thing that interim Coach Scott Brooks did is put Durant back at his natural position, small forward. During Brooks' pregame standup on Wednesday, I asked him to explain specifically why he made this move and if he expects this to be a permanent change. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that Carlesimo hired Brooks to be one of his assistants, so Brooks feels very loyal to Carlesimo; in fact, Brooks specifically told the assembled media that the fact that Carlesimo essentially gave Brooks his blessing to take the job, saying that this is just part of the business, made this a much smoother transition for Brooks then it otherwise might have been. So, whatever Brooks thinks about Carlesimo's original strategy of putting Durant at shooting guard, he obviously is going to choose his words carefully. With that caveat in mind, here is Coach Brooks' response: "We're just evaluating it as the season goes along. I think that the advantage that we have with Kevin and Jeff (Green, the starting power forward) is that they are both very good, talented, young forwards--kind of like throwback guys. It seems like the league is going small. You've got 6-2 two guards (shooting guards), 6-5, 6-6 three men (small forwards). With Kevin, he's good enough to do a lot of things in a lot of different spots. The guy's a terrific young talent and we're all excited that we have him. He works extremely hard. You can put him on the floor and he's going to perform well."

I followed up by asking, "By putting him at forward, does that allow him to operate in different areas of the court or attack in different ways than he was attacking at guard, giving him some kind of advantage?"

Coach Brooks replied, "Well, I think a job as a coach whether he is at the two or the three or the four is that we put him in those spots where we can dictate where he takes most of his shots and that's our focus: getting good shots. We don't want to just say that now that he's at the three we assume that he is going to get good shots. It goes hand in hand with the player and the coach to find the best spots on the court that he is going to be successful in. I think Kevin is a smart player and he looks forward to getting better every day and he--along with myself--will figure out what are the best spots on the court for him. But he's good, he's one of those players who can score high, side, low, free throws, transition. He's a talented player."

Coach Brooks' answers are very informative, if understood correctly. He diplomatically avoided criticizing Carlesimo and he made sure to emphasize that Durant is a talented and hard working player but he made it clear that the idea moving forward (no pun intended) is to "dictate where he takes most of his shots" and to improve Durant's shot selection; the first part of that process is putting Durant at his natural position, thus getting him into a comfort zone.

After getting Coach Brooks' take on the matter, I went into the Thunder's locker room to find out what Durant thinks about the change; Durant had just finished his pregame shooting drills (see Notes From Courtside in my recap of Cleveland's 117-82 win over Oklahoma City for a description of his shooting form) and he was sitting by his locker reading the pregame notes. I made sure that I was not disturbing his pregame routine and then conducted a brief interview with the 2008 Rookie of the Year:

Q: "In the early part of your NBA career you have predominantly been playing shooting guard but since Coach Brooks has taken over he has switched you to small forward. Tell me about that adjustment and what are some of the differences in playing those two positions. What is the advantage of having you at small forward?"

Durant: "I think that in our system the two and the three is basically the same but moving me to the three puts me closer to the basket. I'm going to be able to post up a little bit more now. Other than that I think it's just about the same. Wherever coach puts me I just want to come out and play hard."

I think that many writers would take that quote, run with it and use it as the basis of a story saying that the change does not matter. However, if you understand the game and know the history of Durant's career then you realize that his first answer was just a polite, superficial response to what he may have assumed was a generic question from a generic reporter. Many players assume--in some cases, correctly--that members of the media don't understand much about the sport, so when players are asked a question they often just give a simple, formulaic answer because they figure that all the reporter wants is any kind of sound bite. So Durant simply said that the positions are basically the same and then showed that he is "on message" by echoing Coach Brooks' emphasis on the importance of playing hard.

As you will see, after a few more questions the truth about the position switch emerges. First, I asked Durant, "But through all of your career prior to the NBA you always played forward, right? You hadn't played guard until getting to the NBA level, right?"

Durant confirmed this: "I hadn't played guard until my rookie year; that is the only year I played guard in my entire life."

Q: "So wasn't that an adjustment in terms of getting the ball in different spots on offense and wasn't it totally different on defense as well?"

Durant: "Exactly. Playing against the smaller guys, guarding them on defense, and then having little guys who could reach up under me and guard me--it was an adjustment. It was something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now."

Read that last sentence again. Playing shooting guard was "something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now." In other words, the two positions are not "basically the same," particularly for someone who had never played guard before at any level and who was now forced to learn the position at the very highest level of the sport.

Q: "What is the one aspect of your game you worked on the most during the summer in order to improve from your rookie season to your second season?"

Durant: "Just everything--getting stronger, my post up game, my ballhandling. Everything. I think that I did a good job on working on that and I just have to continue to work to become better."

Durant struggled with his shot during most of his rookie season but really picked things up down the stretch. I asked him what changed and he told me, "I think that I was getting easier shots. I started to post up more in the second half of the year. I was knocking down open shots and my teammates did a great job of getting me easy baskets, layups and dunks and things like that. That helped me out a lot."

Q: "The process of getting easier shots--was that an adjustment that you made in terms of your shot selection?"

Durant: "Most definitely. I stopped shooting three pointers. I was shooting close to six or seven a game early on and I cut that down to maybe one or two. By doing that, my field goal percentage went up and I was getting easier shots."

Q: "Was that an adjustment the coaching staff suggested to you or you just decided on your own that you needed to stop doing that?"

Durant: "It was something that I told myself that I need to stop doing until I get comfortable with the three point line and consistently knocking it down. I think that was me growing up, learning to move in some and not shoot too many threes."

Q: "Watching you shoot when you were warming up, it looked like the midrange shot--the elbow jumper and the shot from the baseline--you hardly missed those at all but when you backed up just one or two steps to the three point line you still shot a good percentage but it seemed like there was a difference in your comfort level. Would you say that is true with the three point shot still, that the extra step makes a difference?"

Durant: "I'm still trying to find my comfort level at the three point line but I think that the midrange game is where my shot is; that's why I knock all my (midrange) shots down. The midrange game is something that I love doing and my teammates do a great job of finding me there. I work hard on it after practice, before practice, shootarounds, after shootarounds--just knocking that shot down. If I continue to work then it will be an even better shot for me."

Q: "Is there a veteran player, either on your team on another team, that you watch and on whom you model your midrange game?"

Durant: "There are a lot of guys. LeBron has a good midrange jumper, I think. Carmelo (Anthony), Michael Redd, also Paul Pierce does a great job of shooting from midrange. I watch those guys and learn a lot from them."

It is a bit ironic that Durant mentioned LeBron James, because I think that Durant's midrange shot is already better than James' midrange shot; maybe Durant was simply being deferential to a player he respects and who he was about to face that night. Anthony, Redd and Pierce certainly do have midrange games worth admiring. I thought that Durant might mention Richard Hamilton.

During Coach Brown's pregame standup on Wednesday, I asked him if the position switch for Durant changed his defensive plans in any way. Coach Brown replied, "For us (defensively), the two and the three are the same. We just look at the two guys and have LeBron guard whoever is bigger and Delonte (West) guard whoever is smaller...It really doesn't make a difference to us but psychologically in their minds it may make a difference. I don't know, because I am not in their locker room." It is important to remember that even though the defensive matchup does not change for Cleveland that is not the case for other teams. Also, Oklahoma City's lineup switch is not only designed to impact who guards Durant but also where Durant is stationed on the court offensively--"put him in those spots where we can dictate where he takes most of his shots" is the way Coach Brooks put it, as noted above--and who Durant guards when the Thunder are on defense.

My analysis of Durant's game in previous posts since he was drafted may have seemed harsh at times but all I am doing is reporting what I see and then drawing logical conclusions; in the process I also tried to tone down all of the hype that was showered on him. In the long run, I think that the groundless hype could do him more damage than my substantive criticisms, many of which he clearly has figured out on his own to be true (such as the importance of getting stronger, improving his ballhandling and shooting fewer three pointers). Durant is an earnest, soft spoken and likable person and I can honestly say that I hope he does succeed in becoming a great player--but with his body type and skill set I think that he has his work cut out for him to become as great as some people projected. Jeff Van Gundy recently called Durant a disappointment but in my opinion that says more about overheated expectations than it does about what should realistically have been expected of Durant by this stage. Moving Durant to small forward is a big step in the right direction that I predict will pay noticeable dividends, possibly as soon as the end of this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:45 AM

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Cavs Silence Thunder, 117-82

Cleveland opened with a 13-0 run, led 33-14 after the first quarter and completely dominated Oklahoma City in a 117-82 victory. Even in the most lopsided blowouts the losing team usually makes some kind of a run but Cleveland led by at least 29 points for the entire second half. The easy win enabled LeBron James to play a career-low tying 17 minutes but he made the most of his limited court time with 14 points, three rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and one steal. Zydrunas Ilgauskas led Cleveland with 17 points and seven rebounds. Chris Wilcox paced Oklahoma City with 14 points. Kevin Durant scored 13 points on 6-16 field goal shooting and only had one rebound and one assist.

The Cavaliers set three franchise records in this game:

1) Their 12-3 record is their best start ever, surpassing 11-3 marks set in 1976-77 and 1988-89.

2) Their 34 point halftime lead tops the previous mark by two (set on April 20, 2001 versus Orlando).

3) The 35 point margin of victory is their largest win ever over the Thunder/Sonics franchise.

It is also worth noting that all 12 Cleveland players scored at least one point for the second game in a row, the Cavs have not trailed at all in their past three games and their .608 field goal percentage is their best single game mark in that category since March 21, 1996.

Oklahoma City was playing the second game of a back to back but so was Cleveland. The Cavs are obviously very good but it takes nothing away from Cleveland's performance to acknowledge that the Thunder look like an expansion team--and a bad one at that. I can't recall seeing in person an NBA team perform worse than they did; they reminded me of the 12-70 1986-87 Clippers, the 11-71 1992-93 Mavericks and the 15-67 2000-01 Bulls. On press row we spent the first half debating whether the Thunder are more atrocious on offense or defense but did not reach a definitive verdict; they finished the game shooting .354 from the field--with 10 of their shots being blocked--and, as mentioned above, they helped the Cavs shoot .608 from the field by all but escorting them to the hoop. At halftime I mentioned something to Sam Amico of Pro Basketball News that bears repeating: none of the individual stats from the second half of this game will be significant because that whole 24 minutes is nothing but garbage time but at the end of the season those numbers will be factored into various team and individual statistical rankings, including per minute stats that will be skewed by gaudy, misleading totals such as Tarence Kinsey's 11 points on 3-3 shooting in nine minutes. There is certainly value in tracking every possible statistic and having those numbers available for analysis but without placing numbers in a larger context they can often be not only meaningless but outright deceptive.

In his postgame standup, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown very tactfully alluded to Oklahoma City playing the second game of a back to back and being a team in transition (with Scott Brooks recently taking over as coach for the fired P.J. Carlesimo). As for his own team's efforts, Brown said, "I thought our guys entered the game with the right mind frame, the right focus. They came out and did what they were supposed to do on both ends of the floor. That's good to see because one of the things we're preaching is developing good habits." He singled out Delonte West for praise: "He did a nice job of running the ball club and trying to get guys the ball on time and on target. Another thing we say is 'pass on time, pass on target' and Delonte's passes were on time and on target."

Coach Brooks said, "The lesson to be learned is you have to come with it every night...the biggest thing we will talk about on Friday will be, when we play against a good team you have to be prepared to take their first hit." Prior to the game, Coach Brooks mentioned that the number one problem he saw with the Thunder so far this season is that the players did not play hard all the time and that comment turned out to be very prophetic (see Notes From Courtside for a fuller exploration of this issue).

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

I arrived at Quicken Loans Arena two hours before tip off and Durant was already on the court working on shooting drills; I did not get to count all of his attempts but this is what I observed: he made nearly every elbow (free throw line extended) jumper that he took and he shot the ball with a fluid, effortless motion. He seems to have gotten taller and longer; when he took one dribble from the three point line he covered a large area before shooting midrange jumpers that he also rarely missed. I only saw him miss two free throws (he shot these before he moved from one spot on the court to another as he practiced his jumpers from various locales) and he again displayed a very nice shooting motion. However, when he shot from behind the three point line his motion did not look quite as smooth and his percentage dropped noticeably, though he still shot well overall (keep in mind that he was close to 100% on his midrange jumpers, so a big drop off behind the arc still means he made close to half of the threes I saw him try). When I spoke to Durant just a few minutes later he candidly admitted that he is not nearly as comfortable behind the three point line as he is with the midrange jump shot.

Durant's shooting motion is much smoother and more consistent than the shooting motion that LeBron James demonstrated when I watched him do shooting drills prior to Cleveland's home opener versus Charlotte. That said, James has improved his free throw shooting so far this season (see below) and he is better than Durant in every skill set area other than pure shooting, which is why James is a legit MVP candidate and Durant is not yet an All-Star caliber player.

***

Coach Brooks played for Cleveland for part of the 1997-98 season, when Ilgauskas was a rookie. They were roommates back then, so during Brooks' pregame standup he good-naturedly made fun of Ilgauskas' driving skills and how much of a "slob" he was that time before adding on a serious note, "He's a terrific guy, first and foremost. That guy is a quality, quality person and Cleveland is lucky to have him for all the years that he has played. He's a good player, an All-Star multiple years."

***

During his pregame standup, Coach Brooks said that a major reason for the Thunder's poor record is "I don't think we played hard enough. It's important to play hard. It's very important to me that we play hard. It's important that our players realize how important it is to leave it on the floor every night. I've stressed to them that it just doesn't happen on game nights. You have to do it on the practice floor. That's the only way I know. I was one of those guys who loved practice. I believe that is how you get better. You can't all of a sudden work on this shot or I'm going to work on this move or I'm going to work on this defense in the middle of a game and expect the other team to participate in that. You have to prepare yourself in game-like situations in practice."

He then addressed some other subjects but the first time I had a chance I asked him this followup: "You mentioned the team not playing hard. When that happens what do you think is the cause of that and as a coach what can you do if you see a certain player or group of players not playing hard?"

Coach Brooks answered, "I don't think that players mean not to play hard. As you go through an NBA season, most players play hard but what you really want them to do is play really hard. There is a difference; it's a little bit of a difference but it is a difference. Guys don't do it on purpose. You just have to figure out which ways to motivate players and it takes different ways to motivate different players."

I then asked, "Is it true sometimes--particularly with younger players--that maybe they don't really know what it really means to play hard at the NBA level? Maybe college was kind of easy for them, that based on talent they just did certain things but the NBA game is a little bit different so that is part of the adjustment?" I meant for this line of inquiry to focus more on the true nature of "playing hard" and not so much on "young players" but Coach Brooks either perceived the question differently than I meant it or else simply wanted to make a point about his team when he replied, "No, I've been around a lot of veteran players who don't play hard. On paper that sounds good--you like to blame it on the young guys--but I don't buy into that at all. I think you want high character guys who understand that we are all here to play hard and whether you are young or a veteran guy you need to have that responsibility."

Rather than reask my question again--I'm not Mike Wallace jumping out of the bushes on 60 Minutes--I followed the train of Coach Brooks' thought process and said, "So that is part of the speech already, 'We're not using it as an excuse that we are young.'"

Coach Brooks answered, "I've never told the guys--not one time--that we're not ready because we're young. We are learning ways to win and it is a process. Not one time have I ever told the guys that we are not playing to win . We are playing every game to win and that's our message: Play hard and find ways to win."

***

LeBron James did not attempt any free throws during his cameo appearance against Oklahoma City but he is shooting a career-high .786 this season, so after the game I asked him what he is doing differently. He replied, "Free throws are all about maintaining focus and going up there and knocking them down. First of all, you have to get some type of routine and then consistently go up there and do that. I found that touch."

I asked James if he changed his routine this year and he answered, "Yes, I changed it but once I found a comfort level that I could go up there every time and do the same thing every time I stuck with it."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cavs Rout Listless Knicks, 119-101

L.A. Lakers versus anyone has been the most popular pick for NBA TV's "Fan Night" each Tuesday but this week LeBron James' much hyped appearance in Madison Square Garden took center stage. James turned in a very solid performance (26 points, four rebounds, one assist in 30 minutes) as the Cavs used their superior size and defensive intensity to dominate the Knicks, 119-101. If this was New York's audition to prove to James that he should leave Cleveland for the Knicks in 2010 then the Knicks have a lot of work to do, assuming that James' first priority is to win a championship; the Knicks have neither championship level talent nor--more importantly--do they play a championship level style of basketball focused on defense and rebounding. The Knicks will score a lot of points this year and they may stay close enough to .500 to at least contend for a playoff berth but the difference between them and the Cavaliers could not be more stark. Check out the game recap that I wrote for CavsNews:

Cavs Rout Listless Knicks, 119-101

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:32 AM

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Knicks Buy Ticket for "LeBron Lottery"

By making a pair of deals that shipped out leading scorer/rebounder Zach Randolph and second leading scorer Jamal Crawford while bringing in the expiring contracts of Al Harrington, Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas, the New York Knicks officially bought their ticket for the 2010 "LeBron Lottery." In fact, the Knicks could be so far under the salary cap in two years that they could theoretically offer maximum contract deals to two players.

Although there has been some talk that these trades signify that the Knicks are essentially writing off this season, the three new players are well suited to the uptempo style that Coach Mike D'Antoni favors. It is easy to picture Harrington averaging 20 ppg if he gets enough minutes, Mobley could score in the mid-teens and Thomas--who played for D'Antoni in Phoenix--could be a solid contributor off of the bench. The Knicks are currently tied for the sixth-eighth spots in the East with a 7-6 record and it is certainly possible that they could continue to hover around .500 with their current roster. A major factor in New York's improvement is that D'Antoni banished Stephon Marbury, a move that I've advocated for years.

However, while I disagree with the idea that the Knicks have abandoned all hope until 2010, I think that a few cautionary notes should be considered about what may happen when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and several other top players become free agents.

1) Whenever a max contract player's deal nears completion there is often feverish talk about him leaving his old team for greener pastures but in most cases these players end up re-signing with their original teams.

2) Now that the Knicks will theoretically be able to sign two max contract players in 2010 there is speculation that they will try to pair LeBron James with Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Either of those combos certainly looks like a great dynamic duo--but history shows that NBA championships are not won merely by putting together two great players. In fact, sometimes even having three great players is not enough: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor never won a championship together, though Chamberlain and West teamed up with Gail Goodrich to capture the 1972 crown right after Baylor retired. Oscar Robertson/Jerry Lucas, Wes Unseld/Earl Monroe and Karl Malone/John Stockton are three examples of pairings of members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List who played together in their primes and did not win titles together. You have to have all of the pieces in place to win a championship, not just a couple great players; Robertson later won a championship with Top 50 player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks, Lucas and Monroe won a ring with the 1973 New York Knicks (who also had Top 50 players Walt Frazier and Willis Reed) and Unseld teamed up with Top 50 player Elvin Hayes to lead the Bullets to the 1978 championship.

It is true that having one or two star players who can take over a game is usually part of the recipe of building a championship team but a championship team also must have a well rounded roster of lesser players who make important contributions. More importantly, a championship team also must have the mentality--and ability--to play consistently good defense. Just look at the teams that have won championships in recent years: the Celtics, Spurs and Pistons were great defensive teams, the Heat was a very good defensive team and the Lakers were a very good defensive team that could be great when it counted, though Shaquille O'Neal's lack of conditioning/effort resulted in inconsistent performances at times. Since 1990, every championship team except the 1991 and 1993 Bulls and the 2001 Lakers ranked in the top ten in defensive field goal percentage--and the relatively low regular season rankings for the Bulls and Lakers are deceptive because those teams proved to be excellent defensive squads during the playoffs.

3) Turning to more recent history, the combination of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming has yet to lead to a single playoff series win, much less a championship. This year the Rockets added Ron Artest to the mix but so far the most notable thing that they have accomplished--if that is the right word--is the remarkable feat of all three of those players getting injured in the same game. Yes, it's way too soon to write off the Rockets but is also way too soon to assume that they will even make it out of the first round, much less win a championship. Another cautionary tale is the pairing of McGrady and Grant Hill in Orlando. Hill was coming off of the best season of his career and McGrady was a rising young talent when the Magic acquired them in separate deals prior to the 2001 season. McGrady won the Most Improved Player Award for Orlando that year and emerged as a superstar but Hill was hobbled by an ankle injury that he suffered in the previous year's playoffs and never again played at his previous level. Meanwhile, Detroit obtained undrafted free agent Ben Wallace in the Hill deal and Wallace became the rebounding and defensive cornerstone for the Pistons as they made it to the NBA Finals twice, winning the 2004 title by defeating the star laden L.A. Lakers, who had four future Hall of Famers on the roster (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, an ailing Karl Malone and the shadow of the Glove--call him the Mitten--Gary Payton).

Literally half of the league's teams have cleared salary cap space in the hope of landing James, Wade, Bosh or another star in 2010. Obviously, most if not all of these teams will fail in these efforts--and history suggests that even if a team manages to wrestle a star player away from his old team this does not guarantee winning a championship.

Am I suggesting that teams should not try to sign James, Wade and/or some of the other big name players who will be on the market in 2010? Of course not. What I am saying is that fans--and front office executives--should understand that without the right infrastructure in place a team cannot win a championship. Remember that in 2007, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each watched the playoffs at home--and their 2008 title run with the Celtics was fueled not only by putting them together on the same team but also by surrounding them with good role players who all understood the critical importance of playing tough, physical, relentless defense.

This means that the Knicks--and anyone else who has bought or will buy a ticket for the "LeBron Lottery--should spend the next two years putting together the foundation for a winning a championship by hiring a defensive minded coach and signing tough minded, unselfish role players. Mike D'Antoni has a great basketball mind and he has been a successful NBA coach but I wonder if his approach can lead a team to an NBA title. LeBron James has already been a part of one defensive minded championship team--the 2008 U.S. Olympic team--and he has seen how a defensive minded approach has helped the Cavaliers become an elite team even without a second star player. I would not be so quick to assume that James is going to leave Cleveland unless the team that is wooing him has a better infrastructure in place to win a championship than the Cavs do; James is going to make tons of endorsement money no matter where he lives and he is smart enough to understand that his ultimate basketball legacy will be based in large part on how many titles he wins.

So much can happen between now and 2010 that it is impossible to say what these players and teams will decide to do when the moment of truth arrives. Injuries and the emergence of new stars and/or new contending teams are just some of the factors that could influence the decision making processes of both the free agent players and their suitors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:43 PM

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