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Friday, December 05, 2008

2008-09 NBA Leaderboard, Part II

The Celtics and Lakers bolted out of the gate with impressive records but the Cleveland Cavaliers are right behind them. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade has continued to display the form that he flashed in the Olympics and he currently leads the NBA in scoring; if he stays healthy and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant continue to play reduced minutes due to their teams' success, Wade could claim his first scoring title.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 18-2
2) L.A. Lakers, 15-2
3) Cleveland Cavaliers, 15-3
4) Orlando Magic, 14-5
5) Portland Trail Blazers, 14-6

The best holiday gift for basketball fans this year will be the Christmas Day showdown between last year's Finalists, the teams who currently have the best two records in the NBA: the Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers. That will be our first true glimpse of how focused the Celtics are on repeating and how committed the Lakers are on being tougher and on playing solid defense.

As I predicted, the Cavs are contending for the best record in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James is playing at an MVP level and his perennially underrated supporting cast is not only once again one of the better defensive units in the league but with the addition of Mo Williams they have more offensive punch than they did previously.

Point differential is usually a solid predictor of future success, so it is worth noting that the Lakers currently rank first in this category (+12.8), just ahead of the Cavaliers (+12.3). The Celtics rank third (+9.1). Those teams are head and shoulders above the next team, the young, upcoming Portland Trail Blazers (+5.5).

The Atlanta Hawks are tied for the seventh best record in the NBA (11-6) but they have cooled off after a hot start, going 5-5 in their last 10 games. If you just looked at the headlines, you would think that the team Atlanta is tied with--Detroit--is dead in the water but the Pistons have won three of their last four games, including a road victory in San Antonio.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 2-17 Oklahoma Thunder are playing at a historically bad level, as indicated by their -10.9 point differential, 2.7 ppg worse than any other team in the league.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.4 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 27.4 ppg
3) Chris Bosh, TOR 26.6 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 25.1 ppg
5) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.1 ppg
6) Devin Harris, NJN 24.8 ppg
7) Danny Granger, IND 24.4 ppg
8) Vince Carter, NJN 23.3 ppg
9) Joe Johnson, ATL 22.9 ppg
10) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 22.4 ppg
11) Kevin Durant, OKC 22.3 ppg
12) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.5 ppg
13) O.J. Mayo, MEM 21.3 ppg

18) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.9 ppg

21) Chris Paul, NOR 20.6 ppg

32) Paul Pierce, BOS 18.6 ppg
33) Ray Allen, BOS 18.4 ppg

42) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.5 ppg

LeBron James took the early lead but recently he has been sitting out for entire fourth quarters as the Cavs blow teams out and that has enabled Dwyane Wade to seize the top spot. At this point, though, James is only one 50 point game from surpassing Wade.

The surprise name on the list--at least in terms of how highly he currently ranks--is Chris Bosh. Interestingly, despite his career-high scoring numbers Bosh's Toronto Raptors have been decidedly mediocre, resulting in the firing of Coach Sam Mitchell, who became the latest in a string of Coach of the Year award winners to get the ax. Whether or not you agree with getting rid of Mitchell depends on what you think are reasonable expectations for the Raptors; I picked the Raptors to be the sixth best team in the East and said that they are a notch below the elite squads, so the fact that they are currently in eighth place in the East--just one game out of sixth place--does not surprise me at all. Unless the new coaching regime can markedly improve the team's performance, the focus will have to turn at some point to Bryan Colangelo's personnel decisions and how he has constructed Toronto's roster.

Vince Carter is getting a lot less positive publicity than most of the other players who are in the top ten in scoring, even though his field goal percentage, three point shooting percentage and assists average are all above his career norms; once the media gives a negative label to a player it is very difficult to overcome that stigma.

O.J. Mayo continues to score a lot, shoot very well and have little impact in other areas as the Grizzlies lose game after game. It will be interesting to see how he performs if/when he is a member of a good team.

Kevin Durant has now played five games at his natural position of small forward, averaging 23.6 ppg on .481 field goal shooting, significant improvements over his previous numbers in both categories. His other statistics have not changed very much but it is becoming increasingly clear that two things that I have been saying all along about Durant are true: the main thing that he is going to do in the NBA is score and he is most effective as a scorer playing at his natural position.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.0 rpg
2) Andris Biedrins, GSW 12.4 rpg
3) Troy Murphy, IND 11.2 rpg
4) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.9 rpg
5) Chris Bosh, TOR 10.3 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.3 rpg
7) Al Jefferson, MIN 10.1 rpg
8) Elton Brand, PHI 10.0 rpg
9) David Lee, NYK 9.7 rpg
10) Yao Ming, HOU 9.3 rpg

12) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.2 rpg

14) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.9 rpg
15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 8.8 rpg

17-18) Andrew Bynum, LAL 8.7 rpg
17-18) Drew Gooden, CHI 8.7 rpg
19) Rasheed Wallace, DET 8.2 rpg

34-35) LeBron James, CLE 7.1 rpg
34-35) Jason Kidd, DAL 7.1 rpg

It did not take long for Dwight Howard to take over the top spot from Andris Biedrins and then build up a fairly significant lead.

As I predicted in the previous Leaderboard, Rasheed Wallace's rebounding average is declining after he initially was on a career-high pace in that category. (regression to the mean, because he has never been a great rebounder).

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.8 apg
2) Jose Calderon, TOR 9.5 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.5 apg
4) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.2 apg
5) Steve Nash, PHX 8.2 apg
6) Baron Davis, LAC 8.1 apg
7) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.7 apg
8) Rajon Rondo, BOS 7.7 apg
9) Chauncey Billups, DEN/DET 7.1 apg
10) Stephen Jackson, GSW 6.6 apg
11) LeBron James, CLE 6.3 apg

Isn't it ironic that Mike D'Antoni's old disciple--Steve Nash--and his new pupil--Chris Duhon--are in a virtual tie? Apparently, D'Antoni is worth 2-3 apg for his starting point guards.

The leaderboard in this department is almost always much more stable than the other leaderboards; the names, averages and rankings really do not change that much during the season. The main shift from last time is that Duhon moved up several spots and LeBron James just slipped out of the top ten because he has been resting during so many fourth quarter blowouts; James' departure enabled Chauncey Billups to move into the top ten, familiar territory for the 2004 Finals MVP.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 PM

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Watch Out for the Denver Nuggets...as They Slide Down in the Standings

All we've been hearing about since the Allen Iverson-Chauncey Billups trade is how Iverson is destroying the Detroit Pistons while Billups is revitalizing the Denver Nuggets. Meanwhile, I've kept saying two things:

1) Besides the well known salary cap relief that the Pistons can obtain by not re-signing Iverson, Iverson can have an impact this season by potentially making the Pistons more dangerous come playoff time because of his ability to dribble penetrate, collapse defenses and draw fouls. Detroit's offense stagnated in recent postseasons but he can have a 20 point quarter singlehandedly; the Pistons don't have an apparent solution to the way that Boston pushed around their bigs in last year's playoffs but the Iverson acquisition can at least jump start their offense. I didn't think that the Pistons were going to win the East before the trade and I don't think that they are going to win the East with Iverson but by the end of the season they will not be any worse off for the deal and there is a decent shot that they will be a more dangerous playoff team.

2) Denver has made a habit in the past few years of beating weak teams but falling flat against good teams; people seem to have forgotten that the Nuggets had some impressive winning streaks when Iverson teamed up with Anthony. It is not correct to speak of Billups' allegedly transformational effect on the team until the Nuggets actually face strong competition.

That loud thud you just heard was the San Antonio Spurs knocking the status right out of the Nuggets in a 108-91 beatdown that was not as close as the final score. This game was played in Denver, by the way, but homecourt advantage played little role as the Spurs' "Big Three" of Tim Duncan (21 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots), Tony Parker (22 points, eight assists) and Manu Ginobili (21 points on 7-11 field goal shooting) dominated while Billups (12 points on 5-13 field goal shooting, four assists) was almost completely invisible, scoring most of his points when the game was already all but out of reach. Duncan provided a nice demonstration of the difference between an MVP level player and a regular All-Star such as Carmelo Anthony (16 points, six rebounds) or Billups; Duncan has an impact on almost every possession at both ends of the court, drawing double teams, scoring and passing on offense while blocking shots, clogging the middle to deter drives and grabbing rebounds on defense.

You may retort that this was just one game out of 82--and you would be quite correct to say that but this truth should hardly be encouraging to Denver supporters because it is reasonable to expect plenty of other results like that as the Nuggets begin their inevitable descent from third in the West to fighting for the eighth playoff spot. Keep in mind that the Nuggets are just two games ahead of the three teams in a logjam at the seventh-ninth spots right now.

At full strength, the Lakers, Hornets, Spurs, Jazz, Rockets, Blazers and Mavericks are better than the Nuggets. The Suns look a bit shaky but I expect them to pull things together eventually. Denver will not win too many games against those teams this year. The Nuggets may very well pad their record in their next three games (at Sacramento, followed by home games versus Minnesota and Golden State) but then they visit Dallas and Houston in a killer back to back before playing Cleveland in Denver, traveling to Phoenix and battling Portland in a home and home series. Let's just say that Denver will most likely not be in third place in the West after those nine games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM

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Wherever Shaq Goes, Controversy Follows

Isn't it interesting that every single one of Shaquille O'Neal's teams has had chemistry issues relating specifically to the Big Diesel? First it was Shaq and Penny in Orlando. Then it was--stop me if you've heard about this one--Shaq and Kobe in L.A. O'Neal did fulfill his promise to bring a championship parade to Miami--with more than a little help from Dwyane Wade--but when the Heat's ship began sinking O'Neal suddenly had health issues that magically disappeared soon after the Phoenix Suns traded for him, giving him a get out of jail card from the worst team in the league last season.

O'Neal has not even been in Phoenix for a full year and "Seven Seconds or Less" has already turned into "Days of Our Lives." I thought that O'Neal was petulant in Orlando, immature in L.A. and that he basically quit on the Heat but I must say that--based on what is publicly known--I don't think that the Phoenix drama is his fault, even though it revolves around what his presence on the team means in terms of tempo and shot distribution.

Steve Nash has openly questioned whether new Coach Terry Porter's slow down game plan will work; as an aside, with the Suns currently 11-9 and Mike D'Antoni's undermanned New York Knicks contending for a playoff spot in the East at 8-10, we may now know the answer to the question about whether Phoenix' success in previous years was due more to Steve Nash or to D'Antoni's system, a system which this season has vaulted journeyman point guard Chris Duhon to a place among the league leaders in assists.

Meanwhile, Amare Stoudemire is griping that he should be "that guy," the focal point of the Suns the way that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the focal points of their franchises.

You know that the world has been turned upside down when O'Neal is the mature voice of reason; he correctly said that the players don't need Coach Porter's permission to run--just get the rebound and go. O'Neal has been smart enough in Phoenix to understand that he would look like an idiot if he started demanding the ball the way that he did when Bryant was emerging as a star in L.A.; it seemed like the whole world was on the charismatic O'Neal's side at that time but everyone can see that O'Neal is in no condition to be a franchise player now. O'Neal is willing to rebound, defend and accept whatever low post scoring opportunities come his way, so the Suns should be glad that his arrival put an end to the rebounding problems that plagued them for years. As a TNT graphic showed during Dallas' 112-97 win over Phoenix on Thursday night, with O'Neal on board the Suns closed out last season on a 15-5 run; during those games they had a +3.9 rebounding differential and they averaged 112.0 ppg, which clearly proves that they can benefit from O'Neal's paint presence without having to slow down their fast breaking attack. They beat their perennial nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, in two regular season games after acquiring O'Neal and seemed to have the Spurs handled in game one of their playoff series but when the Spurs came back to win that contest it apparently sucked all of the life out of the Suns--possibly even carrying over into their desultory start to this season.

Stoudemire scored a team-high 28 points versus Dallas and he attempted 21 field goals, 10 more than anyone else on the team. However, he only had five rebounds, he committed a team-high four turnovers and his Dallas counterpart, Dirk Nowitzki, was far and away the best player on the floor, scoring a season-high 39 points on 17-25 shooting while grabbing nine rebounds.

Stoudemire should be happy to play power forward alongside O'Neal, because both offensively and defensively O'Neal is really taking a burden off of him by matching up with the opposing team's biggest player. Remember how O'Neal pledged last season to help turn Stoudemire into the best power forward in the NBA? The problem is that Stoudemire is so focused on having a big payday in 2010 when he becomes a free agent that it seems like all he cares about is his scoring average. What about rebounding the ball, blocking shots and playing sound overall defense?

The ex-players on TNT and NBA TV are not at all sympathetic to Stoudemire's complaints. Chris Webber said that if he could have played with O'Neal and Nash then he would have won a ring; that led to a funny retort from Kenny Smith about whether Webber wanted to say something to former teammates Vlade Divac and Mike Bibby, who of course played the same positions alongside Webber in Sacramento that O'Neal and Nash respectively play in Phoenix. Webber also made the excellent point that unless you are averaging at least 10 rpg as a big guy you cannot say that you are the man. Charles Barkley echoed that last sentiment and added that a true franchise player never has to declare that he is the man; he simply dominates games and everyone else falls into line. Smith pointed out that Stoudemire is already leading the team in minutes and scoring and that the only reason his numbers are down from last year is that Phoenix is playing at a slower pace, hence there are fewer possessions.

Does Kobe Bryant have to tell anyone that he is "that guy" for the Lakers? How about LeBron James in Cleveland? Can you imagine Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan or Julius Erving making such a statement during their primes? Often, it seems that people who talk about being "that guy" are in fact, not really "that guy" after all--such as Stephon Marbury, the self proclaimed best point guard on the planet. Amare Stoudemire is a very good player but he is already the focal point of his team's offense anyway so, as Smith noted, it is not clear what he is complaining about in the first place. Stoudemire is playing alongside two former MVPs and has a talented supporting cast with Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, so if he wants to be "that guy" there is a simple solution: lead the Suns to the top of the standings. There is no question that the Suns have enough talent to be an upper echelon team; the question is whether or not they are willing to do the necessary work at the defensive end of the court to reach that status. It is much easier to complain and make excuses than it is to stay focused and work hard. If you are "that guy" then you set the tone for your teammates in terms of playing hard on defense, work ethic and overall intensity.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:57 AM

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Fortuitous" Murphy Tip-In Lifts Pacers Over Lakers

Troy Murphy's left handed tip-in as time expired enabled the Indiana Pacers to defeat the L.A. Lakers 118-117 at Conseco Fieldhouse; the Lakers, who still own the best record in the Western Conference (14-2) and are tied with the 17-2 Boston Celtics for fewest losses in the NBA, squandered a 16 point fourth quarter lead. Murphy finished with 16 points and a game-high 17 rebounds as the Pacers controlled the boards, outrebounding the Lakers 50-41, including a 19-8 advantage on the offensive glass. Danny Granger scored a game-high 32 points but he shot just 10-27 from the field. T.J. Ford added 21 points, eight assists and three steals while committing just one turnover; his dribble penetration repeatedly broke down the Lakers' defense, leading to open shots (and offensive rebounding opportunities even if the initial shot did not go in, because the Lakers had to scramble and rotate). Rasho Nesterovic scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, essentially playing Andrew Bynum (17 points, nine rebounds) to a standstill in a matchup that the Lakers surely expected to dominate. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 28 points on 10-21 field goal shooting, while Pau Gasol had 20 points and nine rebounds. All five starters for both teams scored in double figures; the Lakers' Trevor Ariza was the only bench player to reach double figures, contributing 13 points, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot but he also had four turnovers in just under 25 minutes, a high total for a player who is not a primary ballhandler.

One of the biggest stories in the NBA this season has been the Lakers' improved defense but you wouldn't believe that if this was the only Lakers' game you've seen; during Laker Coach Phil Jackson's postgame standup, someone asked him what he did not like about the Lakers' defense versus Indiana and Jackson replied, "Everything."

Indiana jumped out to a 9-4 lead less than three minutes into the game. Right from the start it was clear that the Lakers were not playing the way that they did in most of their previous games, as the Pacers repeatedly drained wide open shots. In many games this season Bryant has not looked for his shot early and then contributed whatever scoring was needed later on but against Indiana he attempted three shots in the first 49 seconds, making a midrange jumper and missing a short jumper and a three pointer. Nesterovic scored eight points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the first quarter, with three of his makes coming on long jumpers. A knowledgeable courtside observer said to me after the first quarter that at first Bynum gave Nesterovic--a proven jump shooter who has no offensive moves when closely guarded--too much room in order to defend the lane against cutters but after Coach Jackson berated Bynum the young center ended up in no man's land "guarding air," positioning himself too far away from Nesterovic to bother his shot but not close enough to the hoop to deter cutters. That is the type of information that boxscore data does not reveal but that plays a role in how coaches design game plans and react during games; the numbers tell you part of the story of what Nesterovic and Bynum did while they were on the court but only by watching the game with understanding can you determine how their actions not only affected their individual matchup but also impacted other players (cutters to the hoop in this instance) and thereby the overall course of the game. One numerical hint in the boxscore is that Nesterovic had a +2 plus/minus rating, while Bynum had a -6 plus/minus rating but without watching the game you cannot possibly know why that was the case.

Eventually, the Lakers found a useful mismatch that they could exploit: Pau Gasol versus Murphy. Gasol scored 10 first quarter points and the Lakers led 30-28 after the first 12 minutes. Still, this was hardly a satisfactory performance from their standpoint: they committed five turnovers and allowed the Pacers to shoot .542 from the field.

Bryant took his usual rest with 41 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Lakers ahead, 28-26. When he returned at the 6:57 mark of the second quarter, the Pacers led 42-40. I have not seen every single Lakers' game this year and I know that they have one of the highest scoring second units in the league but it still seems to me that--just like last year--the Lakers' bench players perform better when Bryant is in the game with them than when they are on their own or paired with a starter other than Bryant. People always focus on the last play or final minutes of a game but what happens in the "hidden" minutes is just as important, so we should not dismiss the significance of a four point swing in a game that was ultimately decided by a last second shot--particularly since the bench players were also involved in another negative point swing later in the game.

With Bryant back on the floor, the Lakers kicked into high gear: Bryant got a steal and orchestrated a slick fast break, passing to Lamar Odom, who fed Ariza for a layup. Ariza got fouled and made the free throw to convert the three point play to put the Lakers up 43-42. The Pacers fought back to take a 48-44 lead but then Bryant scored 11 points and had one assist in the last 3:45 of the half: he hauled in Odom's errant lob pass, landed and made a reverse layup, fed Gasol for a jumper, made a driving left handed layup, spun away from a double team on the baseline for a reverse layup, tossed the ball to himself off of the backboard in traffic in order to escape a trap and make another layup (!) and then crossed over multiple defenders, made a layup, drew a foul and converted the three point play. The self-pass--reminiscent of a maneuver that Tracy McGrady has pulled off in the All-Star Game, except that McGrady dunked the ball (albeit against much less defensive resistance--was as stunning as it was unexpected and would probably have been remembered as the play of the game if not for Murphy's game winner. The Lakers led 66-61 at halftime after Bryant's scoring outburst.

At the start of the third quarter, Bryant picked up right where he had left off, scoring seven points in the first 3:09, but the Lakers were not able to pull away because the Pacers answered in kind, largely as a result of opportunities created by Ford, who made a three pointer and had three assists in the first 4:20 of the third quarter. I have often talked about Bryant being the most fundamentally sound player in the league. What does that mean? It refers to a lot of things about his game, including the overall completeness of his skill set and a lot of "little" things that he does that casual observers might not notice but that those who understand basketball see and appreciate. In my Slam Online article about Bryant and LeBron James I noted Bryant's savvy as a free throw line offensive rebounder. One third quarter play demonstrated a different kind of awareness; after Bryant missed a three pointer, Gasol snared the offensive rebound. Instead of simply watching the action, Bryant immediately cut hard to the hoop and made eye contact with Gasol (who is also a very savvy player). Gasol passed to Bryant, who banked in a short jump shot. That scoring opportunity was created not by great athletic ability but by moving without the ball and knowing how to find the soft spot in a defense. Is Bryant the only NBA player who does something like that? Of course not; this is just a specific example of the type of thing that I mean when I talk about fundamentals and complete skill sets and I make comparisons that are not purely based on raw numbers.

Another example of Bryant's court savvy did not result in any tangible box score numbers; with the score tied at 84 late in the third quarter, Bryant and Bynum ran a screen roll action on the left wing. When both defenders attack the ballhandler--Bryant in this case--their goal is to either trap him completely or at the very least force a pass away from the hoop to a player who is not in scoring position but Bryant accepted the trap, split the two defenders and delivered a beautiful feed to a cutting Bynum, who was fouled by a rotating defender; it takes a combination of mental skills (reading the defenders in a split second) and physical skills (ballhandling, agility, speed) for Bryant to make that play. Bynum did not make the shot, so Bryant obviously did not get an assist--and after Bynum missed both free throws that possession essentially became the equivalent of a turnover. Again, Bryant is not the only player in the NBA who reads and splits traps--but if you are wondering what I mean when I talk about skill sets and about unselfish, playmaking actions that are not recorded in the boxscore as assists, that is a good example to consider in both regards; it is worth noting that even if Bynum had made both free throws Bryant would not have received any boxscore credit for a scoring opportunity that was created by his ability to draw double teams and then beat the trap.

I can't write about the third quarter without mentioning Ariza, who reminds me of Inspector Gadget because of the way he uses his long arms to poke the ball free for steals; you could almost hear him saying "Go, go Gadget arms" as he repeatedly pilfered the ball and headed downcourt to either dunk the ball or get fouled. At times, Ariza's disruptive defense is reminiscent of the way that Scottie Pippen played defense, though Pippen could sustain that impact for a longer period of time and against a greater variety of positions, guarding anyone from point guards to power forwards (Pippen also had a much more complete offensive game than Ariza).

The Lakers led 88-86 when Bryant went to the bench with 2:07 remaining in the quarter. This time, the bench players performed well without him: Jordan Farmar scored on a drive to the hoop, then penetrated to the hoop and delivered a behind the back feed to Bynum for a dunk. Inspector Gadget--I mean Ariza--got a steal and a slam, Sasha Vujacic drilled a three pointer and Bynum scored a reverse dunk on an alley oop feed from Odom. After Bynum hit a pair of free throws the Lakers enjoyed a 101-86 lead heading into the final 12 minutes.

So, that flurry proves that I have underrated the Lakers' bench, right? Sorry, I have to go Lee Corso here and say, "Not so fast, my friend." Or, if you prefer, Ray Lewis' line--"The same thing that will make you laugh will make you cry"--will also suffice. Coach Jackson kept Bynum on the court with four reserves--Odom, Farmar, Vujacic and Ariza--to start the fourth quarter and that group missed two out of three shots and committed four turnovers as the Pacers sliced the margin to 104-96 in less than three minutes, forcing Jackson to call a timeout and bring in the other four starters to play alongside Bynum. Jackson later said, "I didn't like at all the way that we started the fourth quarter. They came out and fiddled it away. You can't do that on the road. That gives momentum to the home team."

It is easy to say that the Lakers were still ahead at that point so the starters should have been able to finish the game but that discounts the intangible basketball reality of momentum--you may not be able to quantify momentum in a boxscore but that does not mean it does not exist. Players who are out of the game can lose rhythm and the team that is making a comeback gains confidence, energy and enthusiasm, so it is not always possible to stop a run simply by taking out players who were performing poorly. In his great book "Those Who Love the Game," Doc Rivers described how it would frustrate him when he would lock down an opposing player defensively, head to the bench for a brief rest and then have to deal with a raging inferno after the man he was guarding got hot--and gained confidence--against whoever had subbed in for Rivers.

There have been several times this season that Bryant rode in to rescue the Lakers after the bench was not able to maintain a comfortable lead--here is a recap that I wrote about one such game--but against the Pacers he was not quite able to do so. Bryant missed the first two shots he took after coming back into the game and then he split a pair of free throws, putting the Lakers up 105-98 with 6:47 left. Granger scored all 10 of his fourth quarter points in the final 5:32, including a big three pointer at the 1:42 mark to pull the Pacers to within 115-114. After Gasol missed a jumper and committed a loose ball foul, Marquis Daniels sank two free throws to give the Pacers their first lead of the final stanza. Bryant answered with a cold blooded jumper that momentarily silenced the crowd and then the teams traded misses: a Ford jumper blocked by Odom and a Bryant jumper that could have put the Lakers up by three with :14 left. That set the stage for a wild closing sequence after an Indiana timeout. Daniels drove to the hoop but his flailing reverse layup completely missed the mark. As the clock approached triple zeroes, several players scrambled for the rebound and Murphy reached it first, stabbing at the ball with his left hand. Time seemed to freeze as the ball massaged every part of the rim before sinking through as time expired. The home crowd erupted and the Lakers stood around with dazed looks on their faces as the officials completed the obligatory video review. The call stood, the basket was good and the Pacers had earned a hard fought win.

The "go figure" stat of the night is that two of the Pacers' seven wins have come against last year's NBA Finalists; the Pacers won their home opener 95-79 against the Boston Celtics. The Lakers swept the season series against the Pacers 2-0 last year and own a 51-19 advantage in the all-time series but they have not had much success at Conseco Fieldhouse, falling to 3-7 in that building. You may recall that two seasons ago the Lakers blew a nine point third quarter lead at Indiana in a 95-84 loss that Coach Jackson, tongue planted firmly in cheek, called "sad," saying, "They just got 'sad' tonight--'s-a-d,' you know what that is, right? It's sunlight deprivation--when you get out here, it's all gray and the California boys get depressed and they can't take it. They were very 'sad' tonight."

This time around, Jackson offered a more serious explanation for his team's struggles: "I'm always worried when we travel across three time zones. We just don't seem to function right. I was a little bit aggressive with the team tonight because I didn't think they functioned right. They didn't react well defensively. As a result, Indiana hung around and found a way to win it."

Jackson called Murphy's tip-in "fortuitous"--not in the sense that it was a lucky play but that the ball rolled around for so long that time expired, preventing the Lakers from having an opportunity to go for a last second shot. Bryant echoed that sentiment: "I knew it was going in by the way that it was bouncing, so I was hoping that the (shot) would drop in the basket so that we would have one second at least. It stayed up there forever and the clock ran out."

I asked Bryant, "What did you think was the difference defensively tonight versus the other games? It seemed like right from the start you guys gave up more points and a higher field goal percentage than usual."

Bryant answered, "Their penetration hurt us a lot. They kept the middle spread. The penetration, particularly by their guards, getting in the paint and creating opportunities--and the opportunities that they missed, they got second and third chances."

I asked if the dribble penetration put the Lakers in a scramble mode that enabled the Pacers to get more offensive rebounds. Bryant said,"Sometimes it's just the way the ball bounces and guys going after it. They ran down a lot of balls."

Gasol said, "We could have done better out there. In the fourth quarter, one or two more defensive rebounds, one or two more actions on offense would have probably given us the victory. Those things, little plays at the end make a big difference."

I asked Gasol, "Even earlier in the game the Pacers were shooting a higher percentage than your oppponents usually have this year. What did you think was the difference for you guys defensively right from the start of the game?"

He replied, "They were running well. They were into the flow. They were hitting a lot of open jumpers. Our defense was not as intense as it could be in the first quarter and pretty much through the whole game. There was a stretch where we played the defense we are capable of playing but for most of the game we weren't active enough and we didn't communicate enough to make the appropriate rotations."

I then asked, "How does that happen? You've played so well as a team. What causes a team to not become active or not communicate?"

Gasol answered, "Coming out a little too flat is part of the reason. A little too confident, sometimes; it happens."

I also asked Odom why he thought that the Lakers' defense was so subpar right from the start of the game. He said, "We gave them too much space. They got hot from the outside. They did what they needed to do to win the game."

Naturally, Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien was thrilled by the victory: "What a great win for our team and our fans...That's special. It's a great, great feeling for everyone who is a Pacer. It feels great whenever you pull out a win against a great team. To see our players rewarded for their hard work makes me feel great."

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

Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons made the All-Defensive Team once during his nine year playing career, won a championship ring as a rookie with the 1972 Lakers and has won four championship rings as an assistant coach for Phil Jackson (1996 in Chicago, 2000-2002 in L.A.). I spoke with him before the game about a variety of subjects, focusing primarily on defense and on how this Lakers' team compares to some of the great championship teams that Cleamons was involved with as a player and as a coach. I will post the whole interview soon but I will relay one of his comments now because it was very prescient regarding this game and is worth keeping in mind as the season progresses:

When I asked him to compare this year's Lakers to the 1972 Lakers and the 1996 Bulls, Cleamons immediately had a wry smile and I hastily added that I fully realize that it is early in the season to make such a comparison but that I am interested to hear his perspective about how the current Lakers match up to those great teams and in which areas they fall short. Cleamons said that the current Lakers lack the "maturity" that the old Lakers and Bulls' teams had but that part of the objective this season is to develop that characteristic: "We haven't seen too many tough teams this year and the one tough team we saw (Detroit, the other team that beat the Lakers) handed our hat back to us. That's a learning process. Hopefully this team will grow and mature. We've got some tough games ahead of us before we finish out the year and we'll see where we are."

Go back and look at what Gasol said about this game: the Lakers came out flat and a little overconfident. The teams that won 65+ games and went on to win championships--the '67 Sixers, the '71 Bucks, the '72 Lakers, the '83 Sixers, the '86 Celtics, the '87 Lakers, the '92, '96 and '97 Bulls, the 2000 Lakers, the 2008 Celtics--had killer mentalities and were trying to bury their opponents every night. We all know that Bryant has that kind of mentality but it remains to be seen how many other Lakers--particularly the all important members of the frontcourt, the guys who the Celtics dominated in the NBA Finals and who were outrebounded by a smaller but hungrier Pacers team--share that mindset. The Lakers are going to win a ton of games and contend for a title but whether or not they complete the job will be decided by that factor, whether you call it "maturity" or a killer instinct.

***

During pregame warmups, Lakers' assistant coach Brian Shaw played post defense as several Lakers tried to score on him. Perhaps his efforts were an omen of how the Lakers would play in the paint: It can't be a good sign when a retired shooting guard blocks starting center Andrew Bynum's shot. Luke Walton, D.J. Mbenga and Sun Yue also went against Shaw, with varying degrees of success; Mbenga actually showcased an array of fakes and spin moves that I've never seen him use during real games.

***

The game was not a sellout, which is surprising because the Pacers have won back a lot of fans this season with their revamped roster and energetic play and because the Lakers are usually a very popular road draw.

***

Just like I did with LeBron James--and like I plan to do with each and every Team USA member who I encounter this season--I congratulated Kobe Bryant on winning the Olympic gold medal and thanked him for helping to bring that prize back to the United States. Bryant warmly accepted my congratulations with a big smile and when I told him how much I had enjoyed watching the team play he said, "We had a blast." A big part of the reason that Team USA won is that Bryant, James and the other team members not only put in the necessary work--both on the practice court and in the games--but that they filled that process with joy, so it is great that they created such a wonderful memory that will last a lifetime for themselves and for everyone who watched them play.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 AM

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Catching Up With….Kevin Mackey

This article was originally published in the January 2007 issue of Basketball Times

Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey has always looked for a certain kind of player: “the kid who was passed over, who is talented and maybe has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder—and terrific heart and terrific desire.” Mackey has recruited, coached and/or scouted such players for several decades now, first as a championship winning coach at Don Bosco high school in Boston, then as an assistant coach at Boston College in the early days of the Big East Conference and, most famously, as head coach at Cleveland State University.

Upsets are what makes March Madness special and in 1986 Mackey’s 14th seeded Cleveland State squad pulled off one that will never be forgotten, knocking off Bob Knight’s 3rd seeded Indiana Hoosiers in the first round, 83-79. Clinton Ransey led Cleveland State with 27 points, including 10 in the game’s final nine minutes. Eric Mudd, a 6-8 center, had 16 points and 18 rebounds. That Hoosiers team had All-American Steve Alford and, with the addition of Keith Smart the next year, won the 1987 NCAA Championship. Cleveland State received the final at-large bid in 1986, but the Vikings were hardly pushovers: they went 27-3 in the regular season and won the Association of Mid-Continent Universities championship. Mackey’s team played what he called the “run and stun,” pressing and trapping all over the court, a style later borrowed by Rick Pitino and Jerry Tarkanian. Cleveland State ranked second in Division I in scoring in 1986 (90.2 ppg).

Mackey did a lot of preparation for the Indiana game: “I watched 15 tapes of Indiana; I was very familiar with Coach Knight’s style of play through hearing him speak at many coaches’ clinics and (by reading) all of the printed material (that outlined Knight’s strategic philosophies). I was a fan of his and I thought that his defense was the base for all the defenses that are used—by me and by everybody else. I was very familiar with all of that. I thought that I basically understood his thinking and I wanted to play 94 feet rather than play 18 feet and in. We did not want to put Alford at the foul line because he was a great free throw shooter. Watching the films, I felt that he tried to draw fouls. He would jump into the defender; he would try to get the defender off of his feet. We wanted to keep him in the low 20s rather than letting him get 30-plus. We accomplished that. The other thing is that Coach Knight put Alford down the court against the press to score the ball and we felt that if they were having problems getting the ball in and bringing it down the floor then they would have to bring him back because he could catch the ball against pressure and he could handle the ball a little against pressure, pass it or whatever—but then he wouldn’t be on the other end to score. That was the case; he had to come back down the floor because they turned the ball over the first couple times and they were having problems immediately against the pressure.”

Cleveland State next faced St. Joseph’s, whose star player was Maurice Martin, a 6-6 AP honorable mention All-American who was later taken with the 16th overall pick in the 1986 draft. Mackey remembers that his team was not impressed by Martin’s press clippings: “We had a player who thought that he was better than their All-American. Our guy’s name was Clinton Smith and he wanted to cover him; of course I let him do that. Clinton, I thought, completely outplayed (Martin).”

Mackey says, “St. Joseph’s struggled against our press. We played 10 guys in double figure minutes that year and that is one of the things that I am proudest of about that team. Very few teams do that and as a result we had fresh legs in there all the time coming at the other team. They had a difficult time tracking who was in the game and who wasn’t in the game and then of course I felt that our energy level was usually superior—we played harder longer, which is one of the keys to winning games, to getting in the left hand column.”

Cleveland State earned a trip to the Sweet Sixteen with a 75-69 win. Point guard Ken “Mouse” McFadden scored 23 points on 10-15 shooting from the field. McFadden came from the New York City projects—specifically, an area known as Alphabet City—but received little attention from the Big East schools. Mackey recruited McFadden, who painted houses in Cleveland to pay his bills while he completed his GED before playing for Cleveland State.

In the Sweet Sixteen, Cleveland State faced Navy and David Robinson, who would later be selected as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Mackey says, “I felt that, obviously, he was an imposing player in terms of his physical tools—he was so big and so quick and he was active. He was one of the top players—if not the top player—in the country that year. We wanted to deny him the ball and keep him off of the boards. We didn’t have any one guy who could do that; it was going to be a team effort. That year we led the country in rebound margin. Even though we weren’t that big, we placed a great deal of emphasis on rebounding and beating the other team to the ball. We played them very tough. There was a controversial call at the end. Their last offensive play of the game was an out of bounds play. We thought David ran over our defender and they lobbed the ball up to him and he laid it in.”

Navy won 71-70 on Robinson’s last second shot; Robinson had 22 points, 14 rebounds and nine blocked shots. McFadden got off to a slow start, but finished with 16 points.

Success at Cleveland State Based on a Foundation Built in Boston

Mackey’s coaching career began at Don Bosco high school in Boston. “We won the state championship in 1976,” Mackey says. “We had three straight New England Class A Catholic basketball championships. We were a basketball power and we had terrific success.” Don Bosco was ranked as high as fourth in the nation by Basketball Weekly and the Boston Globe awarded Mackey coach of the year honors.

Mackey’s next stop was Boston College, where he proved to be a valuable recruiter, first for Tom Davis and then later for Gary Williams. Competing for prospects with Big East powers like Georgetown and Syracuse was not easy, but Mackey brought in several players who later made it to the NBA, including Michael Adams, John Bagley, John Garris and Jay Murphy; Mackey says simply, “They were the building blocks of the Boston College program.” Boston College went to three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights during Mackey’s time as an assistant coach there, winning two regular season Big East championships along the way.

When Mackey became the head coach at Cleveland State in 1983, the program was not only far from Boston geographically—the team was completely off of the map in terms of being a basketball power. Mackey had a blueprint in mind for changing that: “I felt very strongly that the type of kid that I was going to be looking for had fallen between the cracks, someone who was probably the wrong size for the position. There was a formula: someone who was the wrong size for the position, someone who went to the wrong high school, someone who went to the wrong summer camp—or no summer camp at all—and therefore was not rated as highly as he should have been by the scouting services. Someone who was hungry, quick and tough—that’s what we looked for.”

Mackey unleashed his “hungry, quick and tough” players in a “run and stun” style: “It was basically Tom Davis’ system that I used at Cleveland State,” Mackey explains. “I adapted it, of course, to suit the type of players that we had at Cleveland State, where we played a little bit more uptempo… I did it based on the diamond defense--1-2-1-1—most of the time. We would continually trap the ball, two on the ball, two in the passing lane, one back. We worked on it every day for an hour to two hours a day and we were very hard on our rotations. It was very demanding; the players were in great shape. Coaches told me that they wouldn’t schedule us because it was too difficult to prepare to play us—it took too long. I knew that we were on to something good. It was a good system to play…I always felt that we could win more games than we had any right to because it was a different style of play.”

Mackey adds, “The guys bought into it with their energy and their effort and they allowed us to push them and push them; I thought it gave us a terrific advantage because in our style we were better (than other teams). Part of the reason we were better is that no one else was doing what we were doing.”

A Quick Rise Followed by a Sudden Fall

The 1986 NCAA Tournament run was the highlight of Mackey’s tenure at Cleveland State but his Vikings were far from one year wonders—Mackey had a 142-69 record during his time at CSU. That success resulted in major upgrades for the Cleveland State program. Mackey recalls, “We had a little high school type facility; they built a 13,000 seat arena on campus. We didn’t have anywhere to house our players; they bought the Holiday Inn across the street from the school and renamed it Viking Hall. It changed everything at Cleveland State as far as having the tools to do well in basketball.” You could say that the Wolstein Center is the house that Kevin Mackey built—but he never got to coach there. Just days after Mackey signed a two-year contract extension in the summer of 1990, a substance abuse problem led to his arrest and subsequent firing. Mackey swiftly went from being a rising star to being a basketball pariah.

The first thing that Mackey did after his fall from grace in Cleveland was go to Houston, where John Lucas had a rehab center. Lucas, a former NBA number one overall pick who never reached his full potential as a player due to substance abuse, had rebuilt his life and made it a mission to help other people to rebuild theirs. Mackey recalls, “John was terrific and we bonded immediately through basketball and through the fact that he had had a substance abuse problem. He was terrific with me, showed me the way, showed me what he did. He had a great program. After I was down there a certain amount of time he asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I didn’t think that I would be able to be involved in basketball anymore because I didn’t think that anybody would hire me. He said that he thought that he could get me a job if I was willing to work at it and to be away from the limelight. I said that that was fine, that was what I wanted to do.”

Lucas helped Mackey to get a job coaching minor league basketball. That was the beginning of a 13 year odyssey during which Mackey coached in a veritable alphabet soup of leagues in addition to coaching in Argentina, Canada and Korea. Mackey consistently proved that he could not only find talented players but also put together winning teams. He won four championships, including three straight USBL titles. He was twice named Coach of the Year in that league and is one of the coaches on the 20th Anniversary All-USBL Team. Mackey coached 35 players who eventually made it to the NBA, including several names that most NBA fans would recognize: Darrell Armstrong, Michael Curry and Adrian Griffin, who played on the Dallas Mavericks team that made it to the 2006 NBA Finals.

One stop in Mackey’s tour of the minor leagues stands out: “I had a wonderful situation and good ownership when I was in Atlantic City. We won three championships in a row in the USBL. That was a great run, with a lot of good players and a good organization.”

A Second Chance at the Big Time for a Basketball Lifer

Mackey made the most of his time in the minor leagues but he longed to get a job in the NBA. His wish came true in 2003, when Larry Bird became President of the Indiana Pacers. Mackey was the first person who Bird hired. Mackey says, “I’m very grateful to Larry Bird for giving me the opportunity to be a scout in the NBA for the Pacers. It’s a great organization and I’m having a lot of fun.”

What does Mackey enjoy most about being a scout? “Every night going to the arena there is a chance that you are going to see something that you didn’t expect to see. There might be a young man who is off the radar who is going to show you something and outplay one of the big name guys, one of the All-Americans—that type of thing; I really enjoy that. That makes it worthwhile. Every once in a while you see that. Sometimes, it’s a couple of years apart, but you see it. That is one thing that I really look forward to—some night, somewhere, there will be a player who is off the radar who can flat out play.”

Mackey’s sentences are filled with colorful expressions: “He has hands like feet” or “I can find guys like that under a bridge.” These “Mackeyisms” date back to his years as a coach. “I think that part of it comes from when you are working with young people—or whoever you are working with—you want to be able to get their attention. If you can’t get their attention then you have a problem, even if you are right about the point you are trying to get across. Another thing is that you want to be able say something that people are going to remember, something that might make them smile a little bit. So, along the way you develop that.”

In addition to his vivid descriptions, Mackey, like many scouts, uses a certain shorthand when he scouts games in person: “When you are making notes, writing is important, but watching is more important. You watch first, write second; don’t be writing while they are playing or you will be missing a good game. I think that sometimes some people are writing when they should be watching. When you do write, you use your own little morse code or basketball code or whatever—all kinds of abbreviations. Sometimes I’ll write ‘cnsc3’—catch and shoot corner three. Or, ‘drdrndi’—drive, draw and dish. That type of thing, make it quick—‘2dr17footj’—two dribbles, 17 foot jump shot.”

Things have turned out well for Mackey but it is only natural to wonder what might have happened if his college coaching career had lasted longer. Mackey, though, does not believe in dwelling on that: “I think that regret can be a cancer. I’d rather do a good job with today. We had a great run—it was too short--at Cleveland State and that was a great, wonderful part of my career. College-age coaching was a wonderful opportunity and we had terrific success.”

When Mackey talks about basketball, his passion for the game is obvious. He is an excellent scout but he thinks and expresses himself like a coach. Would he want to return to the bench again? “Yeah. I miss coaching and should the opportunity arise I would give it serious consideration. Absolutely.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:25 PM

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