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Friday, December 12, 2008

Game to Remember: Game Six, 1976 ABA Finals

What a treat it is to watch "Game to Remember: Game Six, 1976 ABA Finals"! NBA TV broadcast this program last night, with Julius Erving and Brian Taylor sharing their recollections of the last ABA game, a 112-106 championship-clinching victory by their New York Nets over the powerful Denver Nuggets. Erving won the regular season and Finals MVPs in 1976 as he led the Nets to their second title in his three years with the franchise, while Taylor made the All-Star team and led the league in three point field goal percentage; he is the only player to lead the ABA and the NBA in three point field goal percentage in a season. Denver, coached by Larry Brown and led by Hall of Famers David Thompson and Dan Issel, went 60-24 in 1975-76; their team was so good that the ABA All-Star Game that year consisted of the Nuggets versus All-Stars from all of the other teams in the league--and the Nuggets defeated an All-Star Team featuring two of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players (Erving and George Gervin) plus Artis Gilmore, Maurice Lucas and James "Captain Late" Silas!

Kevin Loughery, the Nets' Coach at that time, recently said of Erving's play in the ABA, "He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have." Erving's numbers certainly support Loughery's contention, as the Doctor led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) in the 1976 ABA Finals. Pat Putnam wrote a great Sports Illustrated story about the first four games of the series, when Erving rang up 158 points, 51 rebounds, 22 assists, eight steals and seven blocked shots.

Game six was actually an understated performance by Erving in that series: he "only" had 31 points--tying his series low--but his floor game was staggering: 19 rebounds, five assists, five steals, four blocked shots. It is very interesting to watch the closing moments of that game; on each New York half court set possession, Erving received the ball above the top of the key and operated in a 1-4 set, much like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James do today. Erving attacked the basket, accepted the double team and kicked the ball to open teammates who either made shots or drew fouls against defenders who were closing out on them; in part because of the defensive attention that Erving drew, muscular shooting guard "Super" John Williamson scored 16 fourth quarter points. This is a 32 year old highlight but Erving's play has a decidedly modern look to it.

It is so tiresome nowadays to hear people talking about being the man or whose team it is. Everyone on the Nets knew that Erving was "the man" but Erving was also smart enough and unselfish enough to understand that when he was double-teamed someone else was open. This all goes back to something else that Loughery said about Erving: "That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach." Nets President Rod Thorn, who was then Loughery's assistant coach, expressed similar sentiments when I spoke with him: "He was the best teammate of all the players I’ve been involved with in 40-plus years of NBA basketball. He was our leading scorer, our leading rebounder, our leading shot blocker, our leading assist guy--you name it, he led our team in it, plus he was the leader of our team. He guarded the best forward every night, whether it was a small forward or a big forward. He took most of the big shots. Not only was he a great player, but more importantly he was a great teammate."

During "Game to Remember," Brian Taylor said this about Erving: "My memories and thoughts about Julius and being his teammate are not so much about being in the game but his behind the scenes leadership, his practice, his discipline, all of those things that are unseen (when) you see the highlights (and) that made him a phenomenal player and person. That's what comes to mind when I think about Julius 'Dr. J' Erving: what made him great was his discipline off the court and his personality, his human spirit."

ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere once famously declared that some players are franchise players but "For us, Dr. J is 'The League.'" Asked during "Game to Remember" about the burden of carrying such high expectations, Erving--with his characteristic grace, modesty and understanding of the larger picture--replied, "I didn't really feel that (pressure). When I came in I was so young, I was 21; in the last (ABA) game I was 26. So in that five year stretch my responsibilities were my job as a professional basketball player and my family responsibilities...There was so much going on in the world at that time--the Vietnam War was going on, so much political unrest, there was the threat of rioting in various cities around the country because of what had come out of the Sixties--and having gone through that, this was a joy ride, playing professional basketball. Carrying a league? All I was carrying was my jacket and my sneakers, showing up in the arena to play."

The Nets trailed 80-58 with just over 16 minutes remaining before rallying to win game six. Taylor said that this accomplishment contained a "life lesson" that he draws on to this day: "It was the determination and the teamwork and the togetherness that we had all the years that we played together that really stands out for me and 30 years later it feels strong still...It helps me when I'm teaching kids about overcoming adversity. We overcame adversity in a very short period of time but it's a life lesson for us as both Doc and I teach to our young people about how to survive. The game of basketball is so symbolic and that one game helps us as we talk and teach our young people."

Erving deserves the last word about the ABA's last game: "This game connects us for life. John (Williamson) is not with us anymore and Wendell Ladner, who was there in 1975, is not with us anymore, but we stay connected. When you win a championship, when you accomplish something that you set out to do--that you set as a goal months earlier--and then you actually achieve it, it has a bonding effect. It was a superior effort there, from seasoned veterans of five or six years to the rookies who were in the game...I think that the bonding effect is a reality and that's why I've always loved team sports. That's one of the things that separates team sports from individual sports."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM

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Ray Allen Understands That There is More to Life Than Basketball

There is an old saying that you win with character, not characters--but the reason that old sayings last is that they contain truth.

During a timeout in Boston's 122-88 victory over Washington, TNT's David Aldridge told the following story about Ray Allen:

"Back in Washington, D.C., where Ray Allen has had a very good night on the court, but off the court he did what he has done several times when he comes to Washington, D.C. Yesterday, at his request, seven Celtics players, Coach Doc Rivers and other team officials went with Allen to the U.S. Holocaust Museum here in Washington, D.C., which documents the attempted genocide of the Jewish people during World War II. It was Allen's fifth trip to the Museum since he's been in the league. He says that he wants to plant seeds among his teammates that there is a bigger picture in their lives than how much money they are making, what kind of cars they drive. He first did it when he was in Milwaukee when the Bucks' owner Herb Kohl was a donator to the Museum. After one of his trips, one of his friends, as they were walking out, said, 'Well, what about slavery?' To which Allen replied, 'That was slavery. This Museum is a lesson for all of us.'"

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 AM

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Celtics Seek Record Start

Much has been written and said about how well the Lakers and Cavaliers have played so far this season but the team with the best record in the NBA is still none other than the 2008 NBA Champions, the Boston Celtics. A victory tonight in Washington over the struggling Wizards--a 10.5 point underdog according to BetUS.com sportsbook--would not only be Boston's ninth straight road win but would mark the best start to a season in the franchise's storied history, 21-2 (two other Boston teams began seasons with 20-2 records). The Celtics have won nine road games in a row and 13 straight games overall, Boston's longest winning streak since a 14 game run by the 1985-86 championship team.

Last season, the Celtics ranked first in point differential (10.2 ppg), first in defensive field goal percentage (.419), third in field goal percentage (.475), fourth in rebounding differential (3.1 rpg) and fifth in steals (8.49 spg). This season, despite a shaky--by their standards--8-2 start that included a 95-79 loss to the Pacers, the Celtics now rank third in point differential (9.2 ppg), first in defensive field goal percentage (.415, just ahead of the Cavaliers), fourth in field goal percentage (.473), fifth in rebounding differential (4.1 rpg) and fifth in steals (8.45 spg). In other words, their performance in several key categories is virtually identical to how they performed last year--and they obviously have proven that they can maintain such levels throughout an entire regular season and long playoff run.

The pecking order among the "Big Three" has shifted a little this season. Ray Allen leads the Celtics in scoring (19.2 ppg) while shooting .500 from the field, .393 from three point range and .922 from the free throw line. He is also averaging 3.6 rpg and 2.7 apg. Paul Pierce is scoring 18.2 ppg. His three point shooting (.356) and free throw shooting (.830) are good but his overall field goal percentage is a career-low .397. Pierce is averaging 6.0 rpg and 3.5 apg. Kevin Garnett is averaging 16.4 ppg while shooting .515 from the field and .815 from the free throw line. His rebounding (9.4 rpg), assists (2.4 apg) and shot blocking (1.4 bpg) are all below his career norms but some of that has to do with Boston's depth and balance. Last year, Allen averaged 17.4 ppg while shooting .445, .398 and .907, Pierce averaged 19.6 ppg while shooting .464, .392 and .843 and Garnett averaged 18.8 ppg while shooting .539 and .801.

It will be interesting to see how long the Celtics can extend their current winning streak. Their longest road trip so far this season was just three games, one of which was the Indiana loss. After the Washington game tonight, the Celtics play New Orleans at home tomorrow, host Utah on Monday, visit the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday and enjoy a three game homestand against teams that are currently sub-.500 (Chicago, New York, Philadelphia) before heading out West for a four game road trip during which they will play the Lakers on Christmas Day followed by visits to Golden State, Sacramento and Portland. The game versus the Lakers is probably the most highly anticipated contest of the first half of the season and will be an interesting measuring stick for both of last year's Finalists.

However, the Celtics should be careful not to look past the Wizards tonight. As anyone with even a casual familiarity with NBA betting surely knows, the Wizards beat the Celtics three out of four times last season. Washington also enjoys a four game home winning streak versus Boston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 PM

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NBA Potpourri: Phoenix' Big Trade, Melo's Big Night, Big Ben's Impact, Agent Zero's Lament, New York's Addition by Subtraction

Here are some quick takes on several notable NBA topics:

1) Suns' President Steve Kerr is certainly not risk-averse; since taking over the reins last year, he has acquired Shaquille O'Neal, let successful coach Mike D'Antoni walk and now he has traded two of the key rotation players who contributed significantly to Phoenix being one of the West's best teams the past several years. Kerr shipped out 2006 Most Improved Player Boris Diaw and two-time All-Defensive Team member Raja Bell, plus rookie point guard Sean Singletary, in exchange for Charlotte's Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley.

Bell and two-time MVP Steve Nash are best friends but Bell clearly was not happy with Coach Terry Porter's new program in the Valley of the Sun. As for giving up the versatile--but recently underachieving--Diaw, Kerr said, "Boris' contract just didn't fit into our salary structure. I feel much better paying Jason Richardson to play 35-40 minutes a night as a starter than to pay Boris to come off the bench and play a limited role."

There are several ways to look at trades. Nowadays, salary structure is a major consideration but in this case the Suns only obtained moderate salary cap relief. Another thing to consider is which team received the best player overall. Clearly, Richardson--a career 18.8 ppg scorer who has averaged more than 20 ppg three times and is shooting .458 from three point range this season--is the best player in this transaction. The Suns' have acquired an athletic wing scorer who will fit in perfectly when they want to run and who can make three point shots in the half court set when they slow the game down and give the ball to Shaquille O'Neal in the post. Charlotte was not going anywhere this season, so going to a Western Conference playoff team is like a get out of jail free card for Richardson.

Diaw has never been the same player since he got a big contract, while Bell's best days are probably behind him. Charlotte Coach Larry Brown gave Bell his first shot in the NBA in 2000-01 in Philadelphia and Brown is surely hoping that adding two veterans from a winning program will set a good example for the young players on his team. That said, it is hard to discern any semblance of a coherent building plan when looking at the roster moves and draft selections that the Bobcats have made in the past few years. Michael Jordan seems to be treating being a team executive as a part-time hobby as opposed to a full-time job; he never would have achieved the success he did as a player with the kind of attitude he has displayed while running the Charlotte franchise.

The acquisition of O'Neal last year cured the Suns' size problems in the paint and gave them at least the theoretical possibility of beating the Spurs in a playoff series. I don't really expect the Suns to win the West but if their players stop whining and start playing defense then they could be a tough out come playoff time. They certainly have enough talent on their roster to make some noise but Amare Stoudemire needs to stop talking about being the man and start grabbing more rebounds and playing defense, while Steve Nash needs to stop talking wistfully about the good old days with Mike D'Antoni (when the Suns never once made it to the NBA Finals) and he needs to show that he really can, in fact, make players better by finding ways to bring out the best in Stoudemire, O'Neal, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Jason Richardson. Do you think that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James would complain if they had that nucleus? I'm not saying that the Suns have more talent than the Lakers or Cavs--and they certainly don't have as much overall depth--but the Suns have more than enough talent in their seven-eight man rotation to get the job done.

2) Carmelo Anthony tied the NBA record for points in a quarter by dropping 33 on Minnesota en route to 45 total points in a 116-105 Denver victory. Some people tried to diminish Kobe Bryant's 81 point game because it happened versus Toronto but that is nonsense; Bryant's outburst played a crucial role in the Lakers winning that game and the same is true of Anthony's performance, which helped the Nuggets overcome a 12 point deficit. Anthony now shares the record with George Gervin, who scored his 33 points in a 63 point performance on the last day of the 1978 season to clinch the scoring title; Gervin's Spurs lost that game and they were clearly going out of their way to force feed him right from the start so, if anything, Bryant and Anthony's efforts are more meaningful. Anthony shot 12-15 from the field, including 4-5 from three point range, in the third quarter and he shot 16-29 overall while also grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing off for three assists and getting four steals.

3) Cleveland improved to 19-3 with a 101-93 victory at Philadelphia. The Cavs have now won 10 games in a row. Their starting power forward is Ben Wallace, who was the starting center for the Detroit Pistons when they won the 2004 NBA championship and lost in seven games in the 2005 NBA Finals. When the Pistons let him go to Chicago I said that they would have a hard time replacing his paint presence and would not likely make it back to the Finals, a prediction that has been correct so far. Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, is not the same player that he was when he played for the Pistons but it is interesting to look at the kind of production that he is giving Cleveland in just over 23 mpg (he played 34-39 mpg in his six years as a Piston): Wallace is averaging more offensive rebounds per minute for Cleveland than he ever did in Detroit and his overall rebounds per minute average is only about 10% lower than it was during Detroit's championship season. He, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao are almost evenly dividing the center/power forward minutes for Cleveland and that frontcourt trio is a major reason that the Cavs rank first in the NBA in rebounding differential, first in scoring differential and first in defensive field goal percentage. This season, Detroit ranks 17th in rebounding differential, 16th in scoring differential and 21st in defensive field goal percentage. Allen Iverson is a favorite whipping boy for a lot of "stats gurus" and media members alike but if you want to look for transactions that hurt the Pistons, start with losing Coach Larry Brown and then look at the departure of Ben Wallace. Wallace may not be a 34-39 mpg bellwether performer now but three years after he left Detroit he is still good enough to be the starting power forward on a team that is on pace to win 70 games.

4) The Washington Wizards have the worst record in the East but are only five games out of the eighth playoff spot with three fourths of the season remaining. Considering that they have two All-Star forwards and are supposed to get All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas back for the second half of the season, one would think that a team that only a few months ago talked smack about beating Cleveland in the playoffs would be confident about earning a playoff berth and then making some noise. Instead, Arenas said that it would not be a bad thing if Washington misses the playoffs altogether--and he made that remark not long after the season started, when the Wizards had more than 70 games remaining on their schedule! Quoting Agent Zero, "That's what happened to San Antonio and that's how they got Tim Duncan. If that happens with us, it's for the better." Tim Duncan is obviously a franchise player, arguably the most significant and accomplished player of the post-Michael Jordan era--but the Wizards just signed Arenas to a six year, $111 million dollar contract, meaning that he is supposed to be their franchise player. Arenas already has two All-Star sidekicks but by acknowledging that even with their help he still needs a true franchise player to lead Washington anywhere he is basically admitting that what I have said all along about him is true: the Wizards (or any other team) will never go past the second round of the playoffs with Arenas as the featured player.

5) Even with a roster in flux and having to make the adjustment to a new coach, the New York Knicks are just a half game out of the last playoff spot in the East. The best move that they have made is the one that I have been advocating for years: banishing Stephon Marbury. Just by removing his presence from the court and from the locker room they have become a more cohesive and less selfish team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:30 AM

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cavs Set Individual and Team Records in 114-94 Win Over Toronto

Another NBA TV "Fan Night," another Cavaliers rout. Three weeks ago, the Cavs dismantled the Knicks in the game that fans most wanted to see that Tuesday and yesterday the Cavs wiped out Toronto 114-94. The L.A. Lakers have had their share of blowout wins this year but even in some of those games they needed to bring Kobe Bryant off of the bench in the fourth quarter to stabilize matters. That is not the case with LeBron James and the Cavaliers; the Cavs have a league-best 13.6 ppg point differential and have been taking care of teams so easily that James has not played a single minute in six of their past eight games.

The Cavs have won nine games in a row and just moved past the Lakers for the second best record in the league. With all due respect to the defending champion Boston Celtics, I think that the Cavs are the best team in the NBA right now.

For more details about the Toronto game and the incredible season that the Cavs are having, check out this article at CavsNews:

Cavs Set Individual and Team Records in 114-94 Win Over Toronto

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:04 AM

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Closer Look at the Lakers' Defense Through the Eyes of Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Stu Lantz

Much has been said and written about the Lakers' "new defensive scheme." It seems like the chic thing to do is talk about the supposed intricacies of the Lakers' defense while ignoring simpler explanations for their improvement at that end of the court: Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza participated in their first training camp as Lakers and rebounder/shot blocker Andrew Bynum returned from injury to play alongside Gasol for the first time. Adding an agile, long armed wing defender and an agile, long armed post player is bound to improve a team's defense. Of course, it also does not hurt to have perennial All-Defensive Team member Kobe Bryant--who Boston Coach Doc Rivers called the best help defender since Scottie Pippen--on the roster, fresh off of being Team USA's defensive stopper in the Olympics.

It is worth remembering that years ago Phil Jackson adapted Tex Winter's Triangle Offense as his primary offensive scheme but Jackson has a defensive background dating back to his playing days with the Knicks when he was coached by the great Red Holzman; during Jackson's first season in his initial stint with the Lakers, they improved from 17th in defensive field goal percentage to leading the league in that category en route to winning 67 regular season games and the first of three straight championships. In other words, Jackson did not suddenly discover defense this offseason.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Lakers assistant coaches Jim Cleamons and Frank Hamblen about the Lakers' defense, getting their perspectives on what has changed (and why) and how this team's defense compares to some of the great defensive teams with which they have been associated during their time in the NBA.
Cleamons was a rookie on the Lakers' 1972 championship team that won a record 33 straight regular season games. He was an assistant coach under Phil Jackson during four of the Chicago Bulls' championship seasons (1991-93, 1996) and three more L.A. Lakers' championship seasons (2000-02). Hamblen was an assistant coach under Phil Jackson during two of the Bulls' championship seasons (1997-98) and three Lakers' championship seasons (2000-02).

I also spoke with Stu Lantz, an eight year NBA veteran who averaged 20.6 ppg for the Rockets in 1970-71, played for the Lakers during his final NBA season in 1975-76 and has been a Lakers broadcaster since the 1987-88 season.


Note: I interviewed Cleamons, Hamblen and Lantz separately but my first question to each of them was the same, so I will list that question first and group together their answers:

Question: “How much of the defensive improvement for the Lakers this year is based on schematic changes and how much is based on having Bynum healthy, having Ariza for a full season and having Gasol in training camp?”

Lantz: “I think that they both go hand in hand because even with the change in the scheme of things without the players to run the schemes you just don’t have it (the improvement). Having that last line of defense with Andrew helps tremendously. Trevor, he just wreaks havoc regardless of the scheme. I think that it’s a combination but obviously they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing without the scheme being put into place so that has to be at the forefront and then having the players to do that comes second.”

Frank Hamblen: “From day one, we’ve emphasized the fact that we are going to play defense and that we are going to be better defensively. We’ve talked about that with the players and I think that (emphasis) is probably one of the biggest reasons. What we’re trying to do is load up one side, basically keep two guys between the ball and the basket. That helps us a lot. Having more length, with Andrew healthy—we have some long guys on our team with Andrew, Pau Gasol, Lamar, Trevor Ariza. We have some long, athletic guys, so that really helps us also.”

Jim Cleamons (chuckles): “How much, I don’t know, but let’s just say that we’re happy to have a full training camp with them and we are spending a little bit more time at the defensive end talking about what it is we want to do. So I think it’s a combination but I can’t give you a percentage. Let’s just say that things are working out well.”

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Friedman: “From a schematic standpoint, how is this Lakers’ team different defensively from last year’s team and how is it different from the three Laker teams that won championships early in the 2000s?”

Lantz: “I think that the defensive schemes are different from the three-peat teams only because of the personnel. We didn’t swarm nearly as much in 2000, 2001, 2002 as we are doing now. If you watch us now, we will funnel the ball down one side and once he picks up his dribble then it is almost like an amoeba—they (the defenders) are all over the place. Also, when you look at differences between the championship teams and this one, that offensive unit that the three in a row champions had was pretty good too with the one-two punch of Kobe and Shaq. Now, they’ve got more than a one-two punch—they’ve actually got a four headed monster offensively. You never know which guy is going to come out and really be a pain to the opposition’s defense. Obviously, Kobe can do it every night and then you’ve got Pau, Lamar and Trevor and Derek and Andrew. They’ve got a lot of different weapons.”

Friedman: “How would you compare the defense that the Lakers are playing with the way that the Celtics played defense last year? Do you think that the Lakers have reached that level or is there still room for improvement?”

Lantz: “I think that the Lakers still have a step to go to get to that level. I really do like the Celtics’ defense because the Celtic defense is consistent for 48 minutes; regardless of the score, it is consistent for 48 minutes. Thus far this year, in the first 15 games the Lakers have had periods where they aren’t that consistent defensively and they allow teams to shoot 60% for a half or something like that. Then they decide that they better get after it again and they try to tighten the defensive screws but I think that they have a step to go to get to the Celtics’ level because of the consistency with which they play.”

Friedman: “What do you think causes the inconsistency that you described?”

Lantz: “I think it is more focus than anything. I think a lot of times it is because they have played so many games at home—you get that sense of relaxation at home, ‘We’re home, we’re going to win no matter what,’ so you don’t come out as focused. I think that getting out on the road is going to be good for them because they are going to have to be focused from the time the ball is thrown up at the opening tip until the final horn. I think that it has been more focus than anything else.”

Friedman: “Obviously, the Lakers only play Boston twice in the regular season. Do the guys on the team talk about that, about making some kind of statement in that game?”

Lantz: “No, not until that game comes around. You can’t look that far ahead. We’re still 23 days away from their first meeting, so they don’t talk about the 25th of December quite yet but as that day starts to get closer, yeah, they’ll start focusing on that day.”

Friedman: “There is no way to pretend that that is just another game.”

Lantz: “Absolutely.”

Friedman: “No one can even try to say that.”

Lantz: “Exactly. Those who say that it is just one of 82 are not telling you the truth.”

Friedman: “Whatever the Lakers’ record will be at that point—and it looks like it is going to be a fantastic record—everyone is going to look at that game and make decisions about whether the defense improved, whether the toughness improved, all the questions that came up in the Finals.”

Lantz: “Right. Exactly. All the questions are going to surface again, just like they did somewhat in the game that they lost to the Pistons, because the Pistons are a physical bunch who pretty much played our bigs man up, straight up, which means the perimeter (defenders) can lock in a little bit better, which makes it tougher. It’s going to be a very interesting game when it occurs on the 25th, to see where the Lakers stand in that regard and also to judge where their defense stands, because that is going to be a game where you are going to have two teams hopefully playing 48 minutes of just aggressive, encouraging type defense throughout. That is one that I am looking forward to even though it is 23 days away.”

Friedman: “The Pistons game was strange because that is one of the best games that Detroit has played this year. They have not exactly torn up the league since they got Iverson. That was one of their best games.”

Lantz: “That was the best game, there is no question in my mind. I have not seen all of their games but if they’ve played better than that I want to see that game. They played really well, not only defensively but they shot the ball extremely well. They had shots that they made. The final numbers can be very misleading because if a guy misses 10 out of 15 shots a lot of times people say that the defense did it but he might have just missed shots. In that game, guys were challenging shots but the Pistons were making shots. They shot the ball really well.”

Friedman: “In that game, Iverson and Rasheed Wallace seemed to be working well together. Iverson was collapsing the defense and then Sheed was hitting all of those outside shots. That looked like a good recipe for them but we haven’t seen much of that since then for them.”

Lantz: “Again, you have to remember that they’re playing the Lakers. When teams play the Lakers, even though the Lakers are not the defending champs it seems like other teams elevate their games tremendously. The Celtics realize that as well. They have to play 82 games in which they are defending the championship and teams play their ‘A’ game that night.”

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Friedman: “Is what you are doing schematically based on some of the things that the Celtics did so well throughout last season and in the NBA Finals?”

Hamblen: “No, it’s not based so much on what the Celtics did. We just put a defense together of what we want to do and what we thought would help us shut things down. We try to keep the ball on one side and try to keep the ball down on that one side.”

Friedman: “How would you compare the level of defense that the Lakers are playing with the defense played by the Bulls’ championship teams when you were an assistant coach in Chicago? How is the scheme similar or different and how would you compare the overall defensive effectiveness of those teams?”

Hamblen: “With the Bulls, we had several players who had been on the All-Defensive Team. The level of defense was certainly good and that is one of the reasons why the Bulls won so many championships. Then you throw in a Luc Longley or Bill Cartwright to plug up the middle. Michael Jordan was a great defender, Ron Harper was a great defender. Scottie Pippen, of course, was a great defender. Dennis Rodman was a great defender. These guys made the All-Defensive Teams. I can’t really compare the Lakers to those Bulls’ teams defensively just because the Bulls were really good defensively; we’re trying to get to that level.”

Friedman: “Would it be fair to say that this Lakers team is blessed with a little more size than the Bulls in terms of having Gasol and Bynum, so your defense is based on funneling players to the shotblockers, while the Bulls were based more using their speed and being disruptive in the passing lanes?”

Hamblen: “The players on the Bulls took pride in their ability to lock guys down. We’re going to be more of a team defense where we’re going to be in help situations—‘I’ve got mine and half of yours’ type thing; that’s what we’re preaching now.”

Friedman: “So the Bulls were more of a one-on-one team defensively?”

Hamblen: “On the Bulls, each player could lock his guy down. Obviously, you always want to help if somebody gets beat, but they could contain their guys for the most part so we didn’t have to help as much. Here, we know that we are going to have to help, especially because we want to keep our big guys out of foul trouble so we have to do a good job of containing.”

Friedman: “During the Finals, Doc Rivers mentioned that he thought that Kobe Bryant might be the best help defender in the league since Scottie Pippen. How would you compare Kobe and Scottie as help defenders?”

Hamblen: “I think Kobe is a good weak side defender. He’ll take chances looking for steals and roaming. We know that he can lock guys down one on one defensively but he can also anticipate plays from the weak side. We just don’t want him gambling too much, which will hurt our defense; just pick your spots when you’re going to go.”

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Friedman: “How much different is the scheme this year from last year? Last year you had a good defensive team but you were inconsistent. How much has what you are doing really changed in terms of how you are deploying the players defensively?”

Cleamons: “The only thing we’re doing is what a lot of teams have decided to do: basically, playing a man to man defense that is actually a zone; we’re sending an extra defender over in situations that we feel threatened. There’s no big secret about it; that’s what we’re trying to do: give more help when we can and we’ve been fortunate thus far.”

Friedman: “Were you not able to do that last year because of some of the personnel changes and injuries? What brought about the idea of making that change and providing more help?”

Cleamons (laughs): “The loss to Boston. It’s just a matter of the fact that you want to be competitive. You don’t have to do it but it is another weapon or scheme in your arsenal. We realize that when you go around the league that teams watch film just like we do so we can’t do it all the time but there are times that we can do it and get away with it. Players have to understand the scheme, you have to drill on it and have confidence in it and when you need it pull it out. If you don’t need it then you can get by without it for a couple games but you know that you have it as a weapon.”

Friedman: “You stormed through the Western Conference playoffs last year. Did it really come as a shock to the system not just that you lost to Boston but the way that those games went down, the big lead that you lost (in game four) and what happened in game six?”

Cleamons: “Let’s just say that we played well but not well enough. Boston was on a mission and we understand that. Give them all the credit in the world. They were the better team. It’s a new day and we would like to do the best that we can to get back there and I’m quite sure that they want to get back there. So we’ll see if next May/June we get that opportunity.”

Friedman: “I’d like you to make some comparisons based on your experiences in your playing career and your earlier coaching career. How would you compare the way that this team is playing to the 1972 Lakers and to the 1996 Bulls? I know that it is premature to talk about such things but in what areas does this team match up well with those teams and in what areas does this team still need to grow to be like one of those teams?”

Cleamons: “We’ve got a lot of growing to do. This team is talented, no doubt about it, but both those teams were on a mission. That’s not to say that we’re not on a mission but this team does not have that maturity at this point in time. Hopefully, we will get to that stage, but sitting here in December we’re not that mature. We haven’t seen too many tough teams yet and the one tough team we saw (Detroit) 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.”

Friedman: “During the NBA Finals, Doc Rivers said that Kobe Bryant is the best help defender since Scottie Pippen. I know that you coached Pippen. How would you compare Kobe and Pippen as help defenders?”

Cleamons: “Well, Scottie Pippen in my estimation was probably the best. That (Chicago) team had a certain chemistry in that they knew how to help. That’s why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don’t know how to help—when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn’t have to change up. We would have just gotten better at what we did. Those guys (Pippen and Bryant) have certain instincts about what to do. That’s what you are looking for, guys who know how and when to come and give help and where they are going on their rotations.”

Friedman: “If I understand you correctly, what you are saying is that when you have a Jordan, a Pippen and a Harper, those guys were so great defensively that you didn’t really have to give them a scheme explaining when and how to help: they just read the situations on the floor as they happened. With this Lakers team, you are finding things on film and showing the players that when they see this arrangement of players provide help and when you don’t then don’t come over to help; you are instructing them to play in a certain way instead of having them rely on natural defensive instincts.”

Cleamons: “With both groups you have to quote unquote teach them but some guys just have better instincts. These guys we are having to program a little bit but they’ll get it. When you are talking about defense on the floor, defense on the floor is about desire: you want to get there, you want to shut guys down, you want to shut teams down. That’s a killer instinct that you can’t teach.”

Friedman: “If you have a player who is not a defensive minded player you can give him all the schemes you want but can you really give him that desire if he doesn’t have it?”

Cleamons: “That’s very difficult. You earn your paycheck with that one.”

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Readers are free to draw their own conclusions from these interviews but I think that these are the salient points:

1) The Jordan-Pippen Chicago Bulls were a great defensive team because they had multiple players who could "lock down" their man one on one.

2) In contrast, the current Lakers do not have nearly as many "lock down" defenders as the Bulls did, nor do most of their players have the tremendous defensive instincts that the Bulls did regarding when and how to play help defense.

3) The Lakers coaching staff realized that without providing some kind of formal structure regarding help principles several of their players would frequently be out of position defensively, leading to breakdowns. As Cleamons said, "That’s why we have gone to the scheme we are using this year: guys don’t know how to help—when to come over, when to get out. If these guys understood that schematic then we wouldn’t have to change up."

4) The "new" Lakers' defensive scheme is hardly "new" or revolutionary, as Cleamons candidly admitted; it mainly consists of formalizing sound defensive principles such as protecting the paint and providing help to weaker defenders and/or defenders who are overmatched. The "new" scheme simultaneously takes advantage of the Lakers' length and depth while also utilizing help principles to try to prevent the big men from getting into foul trouble.

5) Cleamons astutely pointed out that the Lakers lack the "maturity" that great teams possess. That became very evident last week when the Lakers blew a big lead at Indiana and almost blew a big lead at Washington.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Lakers Are a Good Example of the Difference Between Talent and Depth

Being a talented team is not necessarily the same thing as being a deep team. A perfect case in point is the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, who went 67-15 in the regular season before winning the NBA championship. Their starting lineup included three of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish) plus a former Finals MVP who should be in the Hall of Fame (Dennis Johnson) and a three point marksman who was a future All-Star guard (Danny Ainge). The first player off of the bench, Bill Walton, won the Sixth Man Award and was a former regular season and NBA Finals MVP (he is also on the 50 Greatest Players list). That is obviously a talented team. However, the Celtics were not particularly deep: in the playoffs Boston essentially went with a seven man rotation and the starters averaged between 32.8 and 42.8 mpg.

This year’s L.A. Lakers may be deeper from players 1-10 than the 1986 Celtics were but it would be foolish to say that they are more talented than Boston was that year. Frankly, a lot of people overrated both the L.A. Lakers' talent and depth last season, particularly after L.A. acquired Pau Gasol. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Lamar Odom trio was very effective but the Lakers lacked frontcourt depth, had no solid defender at the small forward position (unless Bryant played that spot) and even though the bench players performed well at times all of their weaknesses were exposed during the NBA Finals by the Boston Celtics, who also did not show much concern about the starters—other than Bryant. Bryant did a lot of heavy lifting while leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals, averaging 31.9 ppg while shooting .509 from the field in three Western Conference playoff series, including a victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

That is an extraordinarily high level of efficient production by a shooting guard, particularly one who receives as much defensive attention as Bryant does—and when the Celtics sent waves of defenders at Bryant in the NBA Finals to force anyone else on the Lakers to beat them, no one else could. As Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said recently, "We know that Boston literally said, 'We've got to take Kobe out, we just have to throw our defense at them.' We have to have more guys fit into our offense if we're going to be a team that can compete with those clubs." It should be obvious that a team that is truly blessed with either Hall of Fame talent or superior depth cannot be beaten by a team that throws its entire defense at one player—that was the recipe to beat Michael Jordan’s early Chicago Bulls teams but it did not work once Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson and others became key contributors.

Some people believe that the Lakers are the most talented team in the league this season. In addition to the players who helped the Lakers make it to the 2008 Finals, the Lakers have added two key players to the rotation: center Andrew Bynum (who missed the second half of last season and all of the playoffs due to injury) and small forward Trevor Ariza, a midseason acquisition who never had a chance to get fully acclimated to the Lakers, in part due to injury. Bynum is certainly a starting caliber player, while Ariza is an excellent bench player who can be a starter in some situations, so putting them in the mix not only improves the Lakers' starting five but--by relegating Lamar Odom to the bench and providing a defensive alternative to Vladimir Radmanovic at small forward--the Lakers' bench is finally as good as last year's press clippings suggested. The Lakers have a good mixture of size, length, quickness, shooters and passers. They are a deep team but they are not as talented as the great teams in NBA history—or the current Boston Celtics, for that matter, a team that has three future Hall of Famers in its starting five plus a young point guard who seems to be blossoming into an All-Star caliber player right before our eyes this year.

It is possible that the Lakers will win 70 games this season. For the sake of discussion, let's say the Lakers win at least 68 games. That has only been accomplished by five teams in NBA history: '96 Bulls (72 wins), '72 Lakers (69), '97 Bulls (69), '67 76ers (68) and '73 Celtics (68). All of those teams won championships except for the Celtics, who lost to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek injured his shoulder; the Knicks went on to win the title (the nucleus of that Knicks team also won a championship in 1970). Those Bulls teams had two members of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List (Jordan and Pippen), plus Dennis Rodman, who would be a sure-fire Hall of Famer if not for his off court antics. The Lakers had two of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players (Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West), plus Hall of Famer Gail Goodrich. The 76ers had Top 50 players Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer. That ill-fated Celtics team had Top 50 players Dave Cowens (the regular season MVP in 1973) and Havlicek.

The current Lakers have future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant but the only other player on the roster who has made the All-Star team even once is Pau Gasol (2006). If the Lakers win 68 or more games and then seal the deal by capturing the championship that will truly be a remarkable feat considering the lack of Hall of Fame talent on the roster.

Despite all of the talk about how talented the Lakers are, what really has happened is that a team that did not even have five quality starters as recently as the early portion of last season now has a legitimate playoff caliber starting lineup plus a solid bench; in case you’ve forgotten, the Lakers won six of their first nine games last season with Chris Mihm, Kwame Brown, Ronny Turiaf and Luke Walton each getting multiple starts.

Clearly, this year’s squad has more depth than the group from two years ago that started Kwame Brown at center, Smush Parker at point guard and Luke Walton at small forward. This year, Brown is averaging 4.1 ppg and 4.1 rpg for Detroit; ironically, he had by far his best game of the year versus the Lakers, "exploding" for season-highs in points (10, a total he matched in one other game) and rebounds (10). Parker is no longer in the league, while Walton has gone from starting 60 times in 60 appearances in 2007 to averaging 4.8 mpg for the Lakers this year.

The Lakers opened this season by compiling a 14-1 record while playing 10 of their first 15 games at home (they also won a "road" game at the Staples Center versus the Clippers). Their only real road test during that run was when they played back to back games in Dallas and New Orleans; Bryant had a game-high 27 points on 10-20 field goal shooting in a 106-99 win versus the Mavericks--including nine fourth quarter points as the Lakers rallied from an 81-76 deficit early in the final stanza--and Bryant tied for team-high honors with 20 points and had a team-high six assists in a 93-86 victory against the Hornets. Bryant shot just 5-15 from the field in that game but he made all nine of his free throws and he scored seven points in the final 1:08, including a huge three pointer to put the Lakers up by six as the shot clock was about to expire at the 1:08 mark; Bryant scored 11 of the Lakers' 22 fourth quarter points.

During that fast start, Bryant’s minutes and scoring were down as the Lakers cruised to easy victories, though there were still several times that he had to take over games in stretches after the bench players faltered and the team hit a lull. However, any veteran NBA observer understands that the great teams and the great players get the job done on the road and it was easy to predict that the Lakers would need a more significant contribution from Bryant in order to consistently win away from home. The Lakers are now 16-2 after just concluding a mini-road trip to the Eastern Conference, losing to Indiana 118-117 on a last second tip-in by Troy Murphy, beating Philadelphia 114-102 and outlasting Washington 106-104. Bryant scored 27.7 ppg on .466 field goal shooting and .903 free throw shooting during those three games. He also averaged 6.7 rpg and 4.3 apg.

After the Lakers squandered a 20 point second half lead against Washington on Friday night and had to hold on for dear life to win, Coach Jackson said, "I think it was poor coaching, that's what it was tonight. Putting too much trust and faith in a younger group, the second unit, that perhaps can't hold it on the road. They can't withstand the fury or the intensity of a fourth-quarter game, so I'm going to have to change it up a little bit, I think." Jackson indicated that he plans to curtail the minutes he gives to the bench players by bringing his starters back into games earlier in the fourth quarter than he had been doing so far this season.

The Lakers led the Wizards 87-71 when Bryant went to the bench late in the third quarter but were only up 99-90 when Bryant returned to action at the 5:41 mark of the fourth quarter. Much like what happened in the Indiana game, once the trailing team gained momentum it was difficult for Bryant and the starting unit to stem the tide. Washington pulled to within 103-102 after a Caron Butler jumper with :43 left and it was up to Bryant to save the day. In the Indiana game, Bryant hit a late jumper to give the Lakers a lead but there was no time left on the clock for him to answer Murphy's tip-in; this time, Bryant hit a tough, twisting jumper off of the glass to put the Lakers up 105-102 with :24 remaining. Andray Blatche's tip-in brought the Wizards to within one and after Bryant could only split a pair of free throws the door was open for Washington but Butler missed a three pointer as time expired. Bryant shot just 5-17 from the field but he made 13 of 14 free throws and finished with a team-high 23 points plus seven rebounds and a game-high seven assists. He scored the Lakers' final five points. As Bynum told NBA TV's Rick Kamla after the game, "Kobe really bailed us out of this one again, made another miracle play to save us. We got a little bit too relaxed in the fourth quarter and they were able to draw off of the energy in the arena and come back."

The Lakers are clearly a deep team in terms of having 10 players who can competently play at least 10 mpg if necessary. That kind of depth is important for withstanding the rigors of a long regular season and in the event that a starter goes down with a minor injury one of the bench players can be a capable short term solution. However, in the playoffs it is less important to have 10 competent players than it is to have at least two stars who are leading an excellent seven to eight man rotation; last year, eight Lakers averaged at least 20 mpg in the regular season (nine if you count the traded Kwame Brown) but only six Lakers averaged at least 20 mpg in the playoffs. In the playoffs, teams rarely have the opportunity to blow out inferior opponents and cannot afford the luxury of putting the ninth and tenth players on the court. Thus, whether or not the Lakers can win the 2009 championship will depend less on their much vaunted 10 player depth and more on the talent/production of their top seven or eight players; since the Lakers do not have a second Hall of Fame caliber player, at crunch time—be it on the road, trailing late or in a tough playoff game--the heaviest burden will once again fall on Bryant to make sure that the Lakers are successful.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:39 AM

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Kevin Loughery Talks About Coaching Dr. J

I wish Steve Smith a speedy recovery from his stomach flu but the good news about Smith's illness is that it led to Kevin Loughery being a guest studio analyst on NBA TV on Saturday night. Loughery, a 15.3 ppg career scorer who twice averaged more than 20 ppg during his 11 season NBA career, coached the New York Nets to two championships (1974, 1976) in the ABA. Of course, the star player for the Nets was the incomparable Julius "Dr. J" Erving, whose all-around game blossomed most fully during the three years that he played for Loughery, who had only recently retired from his playing career at that time.

It was interesting to hear Loughery's takes on current players--he says that Kobe Bryant is the best all-around player in the game but that Dwyane Wade deserves the MVP so far this year based on how he has carried the Miami Heat--but the whole time that he was on the air I eagerly waited for him to reminisce about coaching Erving. Finally, NBA TV went into the archives to show some vintage Dr. J footage as Loughery described Erving's greatness:

That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach. He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have. Beyond that, so easy to coach, total gentleman, great guy. He's the best. He treated everybody the way that a player should treat everybody--his teammates, the media, the other players, the fans. He's the best superstar to be around that I've ever been around.

Rod Thorn, the team President of the New Jersey Nets, was an assistant coach for Loughery with the New York Nets and when I spoke with him he said very similar things about Erving: "He was the best teammate of all the players I’ve been involved with in 40-plus years of NBA basketball. He was our leading scorer, our leading rebounder, our leading shot blocker, our leading assist guy -- you name it, he led our team in it, plus he was the leader of our team. He guarded the best forward every night, whether it was a small forward or a big forward. He took most of the big shots. Not only was he a great player, but more importantly he was a great teammate."

In Part III of my Pantheon series I wrote about Erving's amazing performance in the 1976 ABA Finals when he averaged 37.7 ppg (including 45 points and the game winning shot on the road in game one), 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg, leading both teams in all of those categories. Bobby Jones, who later won an NBA championship as Erving's teammate on the 1983 76ers, said, "He destroys the adage that I’ve always been taught — that one man can’t do it alone." Erving's Finals domination was just an extension of what he did during the regular season, when he led the ABA in scoring, ranked fifth in rebounding, seventh in assists, third in steals and seventh in blocked shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 AM

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