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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bryant Misses at the Buzzer, Heat Upset Lakers as Wade Scores 35

ESPN's Mike Breen repeatedly mentioned that Friday's Miami Heat-L.A. Lakers game matched up the league's two best shooting guards and the Kobe Bryant-Dwyane showdown certainly lived up to that billing. Fittingly, the contest came down to the final possessions and both stars had their opportunities to take command. After Wade split a pair of free throws to put the Heat up 89-87, the Lakers inbounded the ball with 6.8 seconds left. Bryant received the pass from Lamar Odom, faked left as if he was going to use a screen from Pau Gasol but Bryant then took a hard dribble to the right before dribbling behind his back to the left and shooting a pullup jumper from the left elbow. The ball literally went halfway down before spinning around and popping out as the buzzer sounded. Bryant walked off of the court with a wry smile of disbelief on his face, while Wade pumped his fist in exultation. Here are the boxscore numbers for both players:

Wade: 37:39 minutes, 35 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocked shots, six turnovers

13-25 field goal shooting, 2-4 three point shooting, 4-7 free throw shooting

Bryant: 35:30 minutes, 28 points, three rebounds, three assists, zero steals, zero blocked shots, five turnovers

12-24 field goal shooting, 1-3 three point shooting, 3-4 free throw shooting

Observations:

1) When Bryant and Wade were both in the game, Bryant almost always guarded Wade; the only exceptions were when Bryant was caught in transition or if a screen/roll action forced a switch. Wade guarded Bryant at the start of the game but for a good portion of the game--including down the stretch--Shawn Marion got the assignment. Daequan Cook also guarded Bryant for a few possessions. When Bryant was not in the game, Trevor Ariza guarded Wade; Ariza used his long arms to harass Wade's dribble but he also committed some reach-in fouls. At the end of the third quarter, Ariza poked the ball away from Wade but Wade dove on the floor, recovered possession and threw in a long, one armed three pointer as time expired to put Miami up 75-63. That was excellent defense by Ariza but just a very good play by Wade, who showed a lot of determination to get the ball back.

In previous matchups, it has generally been the case that Bryant guards Wade one on one for most of the game but Wade does not guard Bryant one on one, as both Charley Rosen and I noted after a Heat-Lakers game nearly two years ago. Wade does not usually do too much when Bryant is guarding him one on one but Wade is very, very effective in screen/roll situations that help him shed Bryant; in contrast, when Bryant is guarded one on one by Wade he tends to go into attack mode, either posting him up, driving by him or shooting the pullup jumper (depending on where Bryant catches the ball, how much time is left on the shot clock and where the other players are on the court).

2) At halftime, Bryant said that Wade may be the best player in the league in terms of using screen/rolls because of his ability to powerfully split the trap and go to the hoop. This is particularly effective against the Lakers because their big men are playing horrible screen/roll defense this year, as could be plainly seen throughout this game. For instance, late in the third quarter, Wade used a Joel Anthony screen to get free of Bryant and draw a foul at the rim from Lamar Odom. After the play, Bryant raised both of his palms in the air in exasperation. ESPN's Mark Jackson said, "Any time a team runs a pick and roll, it's on the big man to force the guard to go wide. If the guard is able to come off of the pick and roll and get into the seams the responsibility lies on the big guy. There is nothing you can do if you give Dwyane Wade the space to get in to the interior." This gets back to something I pointed out in my recap of the Lakers' recent win over the Knicks: a guard may do exactly what he is supposed to do defensively and still look like he got burned if he forces his man to a certain area but does not get the defensive support he expects to receive from his center or power forward. In the past, Bryant has screamed demonstrably when teammates missed assignments and was often criticized for this, even though Kevin Garnett is praised as a fierce competitor for doing the same thing; so far this year, Bryant has been more laid back publicly, telling the L.A. Times' Bill Plaschke with a smile, "It's all timing; it's a long season. No, I haven't knocked over any coolers yet" (Odom offered a slightly dissenting view, indicating that Bryant has been very vocal behind closed doors during practices).

In the fourth quarter, after Bryant fouled Wade during a screen/roll action, Bryant, Gasol and Bynum talked during the stoppage of play. Bryant said, "I'm sending him right. I don't know where the pick is, but I'm sending him to his right." Mark Jackson explained that in these screen/roll situations it is the guard's job to force the ballhandler one way and the big man's job to cut the ballhandler off and keep him out of the paint. This is why I think that the individual statistical defensive ratings that are touted in various places are very incomplete; they only consider who was nominally matched up with whom but do not factor in cross matches, not to mention the intricacies of screen/roll defense or other situations in which blame (or credit) may not properly be assigned to the player who is ostensibly the primary defender.

There is so much talk about the supporting casts that Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Boston's Hall of Fame trio have but the biggest difference--literally and figuratively--is that Cleveland and Boston have several big men who play defense with great awareness, mobility and physicality while the Lakers have a glaring weakness in that regard; Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum use their length to block shots but they are out of position way too often and they do not play with an edge at that end of the court the way that Cleveland and Boston's big men do. Much like last season, the Lakers are putting together an impressive won-loss record with a high powered offense but they are only playing good defense sporadically--and in many games, they have needed a scoring burst by Bryant to preserve a lead or rally from a deficit.

3) Bryant and Wade both played at an MVP level in this game: they led their teams in scoring while shooting very efficiently, they attracted double teams that created scoring opportunities for their teammates and they played with great energy (Bryant was active defensively in his matchup with Wade, while Wade played his typical freelancing, gambling defense, roaming around to get steals and blocked shots).

4) In an unintentionally humorous exchange after the first quarter, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman said to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, "The first quarter was very low scoring for you. Where are you going to find more shots?" Jackson replied, "No, that's not the issue. The issue is about their controlling the pace of the game. So we're just playing at their pace right now because they're just running all screen/roll, set things up and taking advantage of what they can get off of screen/roll." In response to Lieberman's followup question about the Lakers' zone offense, Jackson said that the Lakers do a good job of recognizing zones and getting the ball to open shooters but that they have to cut down on their turnovers (they committed seven turnovers in the first quarter). I've seen Lieberman serve as a sideline reporter at a handful of games and I've consistently been surprised that a Hall of Fame player who presumably has a high basketball IQ asks such inane questions that do not relate to what has actually transpired during the game; the Lakers scored 26 points in the first quarter, so why would her first question be about getting more open shots?

How the Heat won:

The score was 46-46 at halftime and Miami led 67-63 with 2:00 remaining in the third quarter. That is when the Lakers unraveled: first came the Wade-Anthony screen/roll play that I described above, which led to two Wade free throws. Gasol missed a short hook shot and then Daequan Cook drilled a three pointer on a feed from Wade after some poor screen/roll defense; Bryant forced Wade to the right, but Gasol kind of sat in no man's land, Ariza was wandering around guarding no one in particular and Cook was camped out behind the three point line wide open. I don't think that this play will be cited in the next article about the Lakers' supposedly revolutionary "new" defense but it is a good example showing why the Lakers' coaching staff is desperately trying to get all of the players to properly understand how to play help defense; as Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons told me not long ago, "That (Chicago Bulls championship) 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."

The Heat closed the third quarter with Wade's desperation three pointer and all of a sudden the Lakers were trailing by 12.

As Phil Jackson has done throughout his coaching career, he placed great trust in his bench players to chip away at the lead. The early portion of the fourth quarter was an ugly mess as neither team scored for nearly three minutes. Jackson stuck with his reserves for 6:45 and they rewarded his faith by trimming the margin to 80-74 before Bryant returned to action. Bryant scored on a fast break dunk to make the score 80-76 but Wade answered with a jumper. Bryant made an excellent defensive play during an inbounds play, denying Wade easy access to the pass and then pressuring Wade into an over and back violation. However, the Lakers failed to capitalize on this opportunity because their next possession ended with Derek Fisher splitting a pair of free throws. Udonis Haslem answered with a jumper to put Miami up 84-77.

The Lakers then ran a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll, Bryant passed to Gasol and Gasol kicked the ball out to Ariza, who hit a three pointer. Mark Jackson said, "That play is made by the patience of Kobe Bryant, taking the trap, delivering the ball to Pau Gasol and allowing Gasol to make the play to Ariza." This is exactly the kind of thing that I mentioned throughout last season: Bryant's presence makes the game easier for all of his teammates because of the defensive attention he attracts--but because of the way defenses trap him and the way that the Lakers respond to those traps he does not get as many assists as Wade or LeBron James do. Bryant often makes the pass that creates the play (the so-called hockey assist) but the recipient of that pass completes the play. In other words, James will pass to Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Mo Williams for a spot up jumper, Wade will feed Haslem or Cook for spot up shots but Bryant is often passing to a player who then reverses the ball to the player who ultimately takes the shot. The point is that without Bryant drawing the initial double team none of this would be possible in the first place because teams would be guarding all of these players straight up, so "stat gurus" can keep crunching their formulas and casual fans can be wowed by assist totals but neither formulas nor assist totals are completely adequate to really break down a basketball game. This is a critically important point, because sometimes people assert that James, Wade and Chris Paul make their teammates better but that Bryant is just a scorer. It is true that James, Wade and Paul certainly create scoring opportunities for their teammates but so does Bryant; in that context, it is worth noting that Gasol shot .589 from the field last year as a Laker (easily surpassing his career high of .538 in 2006-07 when he was the first option for Memphis) and he is shooting .562 from the field this season. Gasol's field goal percentage has soared while playing with Bryant precisely because the defensive attention that Bryant attracts affords Gasol easy scoring opportunities.

During Miami's next possession after Ariza's three pointer, the Lakers were called for a kick ball violation and then Phil Jackson received a technical foul for complaining too much. Haslem missed the free throw but after the inbounds pass Wade hit a tough runner over the outstretched arms of Gasol and Odom. Gasol answered by making two free throws and then Bryant tied up Wade, forcing a jump ball. I have seen three interesting jump balls recently: Chris Paul defeated the taller Manu Ginobili by timing his jump perfectly and leaning into Ginobili's air space to prevent him from reaching his maximum jump, Bryant did something similar to Haslem earlier in the Heat-Lakers game--and then the smaller Wade turned the tables on Bryant in much the same way. There were only six seconds left on the shot clock with the Lakers trailing 88-84 at the :54 mark but Fisher fouled Haslem, a tactical error since the Lakers should not have fouled based on the score and the time remaining. After Haslem missed both free throws, Bryant nailed a tough turnaround shot over Marion to cut Miami's lead to 88-86. Wade missed a jumper and then the Heat blocked several point blank opportunities for the Lakers as Joel Anthony swatted Odom's shot and Wade rejected putback attempts by Odom and Gasol; when a shooting guard--even one as talented as Wade--blocks your starting center and your backup power forward (who started in the Finals last year) it is reasonable to question the toughness of your frontcourt players. The Lakers retained possession and after Bryant attracted multiple defenders they were able to inbound to Gasol right under the basket; Gasol was fouled and made one out of two free throws. Wade then drew a foul but also split his free throws, setting up the dramatic finish with Bryant's shot that danced tantalizingly on the rim before popping out.

Miami halted a three game losing streak during which Wade had played poorly, while L.A. cannot be pleased with such a performance in the first outing of a four games in five days Eastern road trip; after they return to L.A., the Lakers will just have one day off before their much anticipated Finals rematch with the Celtics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:56 AM

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Friday, December 19, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part III

Will the "Big Three" teams have to admit a fourth team to their exclusive club perched above the rest of the NBA? Should Dwyane Wade be mentioned in MVP discussions this year by anyone who did not vote for Kobe Bryant for MVP in 2006 and 2007?

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) Boston Celtics, 24-2
2) L.A. Lakers, 21-3
3) Cleveland Cavaliers, 21-4
4) Orlando Magic, 20-6
5) New Orleans Hornets, 15-7

The "Big Three" may have to make room for a fourth team at the top: the Orlando Magic are only 1.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Magic are 10-3 both at home and on the road and have won three games in a row and seven of their last eight games, including road wins at Utah and Portland. There is a perception that New Orleans has had a bad start but the Hornets have the second best record in the West and the fifth best record in the league.

The Denver Nuggets just missed cracking the top five. They are heading into an interesting portion of their schedule: after fattening up their record against sub-.500 teams they earned a split in back to back games in Dallas and Houston and now will play four games in five nights against quality teams: Cleveland, at Phoenix, Portland and then at Portland. There are six teams within two games of the Nuggets in the standings, so a few losses could dramatically change Denver's position in the standings.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.0 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 27.3 ppg
3) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 26.4 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 25.0 ppg
5) Danny Granger, IND 24.4 ppg
6) Devin Harris, NJN 23.8 ppg
7) Chris Bosh, TOR 23.6 ppg
8) Kevin Durant, OKC 23.2 ppg
9) Joe Johnson, ATL 23.0 ppg
10) Vince Carter, NJN 22.5 ppg

17) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.1 ppg

20) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.8 ppg
21) O.J. Mayo, MEM 20.8 ppg

25) Chris Paul, NOR 19.7 ppg

31) Paul Pierce, BOS 18.6 ppg
32) Ray Allen, BOS 18.5 ppg

43) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.5 ppg

Dwyane Wade maintained his perch atop the scoring chart, though his lead over LeBron James shrunk a bit. There is talk that Wade should be an MVP candidate based on his superb individual numbers and how much his Heat have improved this year. There is no question that when he is healthy Wade is an MVP level player. However, if he is going to get credit for Miami's record this year doesn't he deserve some blame not just for last season but for how quickly Miami collapsed from being a championship team to being the worst team in the entire league? That is a stunning fall, even factoring in the injuries suffered by some players, including Wade. The Heat are currently sixth in the East with a 12-12 record; before the season I predicted that they would be the seventh best team in the East, so from my perspective they are not doing much better than expected. After all, the cupboard is hardly bare: Marion is a former All-Star, Beasley is a lottery pick, Haslem started for the championship team, Chalmers has been solid. When Kobe Bryant won back to back scoring titles--in the process setting numerous records and posting the eighth best single season scoring average of all-time (35.4 ppg in 2006)--he led the Lakers to the Western Conference playoffs with the likes of Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton in the starting lineup. None of those players would start for this year's Heat. Bryant was supposedly not a legit MVP candidate because his Lakers did not win 50 games (they won 45 in 2006), but he did more with less than what Wade has done so far this season. Since I base my player evaluations on their skill sets, I have no problem with saying that Wade is an MVP caliber player--but anyone who did not vote for/support Bryant for MVP in 2006 and 2007 is being hypocritical and inconsistent if he votes for/supports Wade this season.

From my perspective, Bryant is still the most complete player in the NBA. His per game numbers are only down a bit this year because he is playing fewer minutes; his field goal percentage and free throw percentage are both up (his three point percentage is inexplicably at a seven year low but he has slashed his three point attempts). As I have documented in several posts, when push has come to shove for the Lakers this year they have needed his production late in games in order to win and he has almost always come through. That is what an MVP does. Obviously, LeBron James is having a fantastic season. He has increased his free throw percentage and improved his defense, so he is a valid MVP choice as well. I would not argue with anyone who picked either player at this point. There is still three fourths of the season remaining, which will provide a lot of time to see if James maintains his free throw percentage and defensive improvements and if the Lakers will need Bryant to have a string of 30-40 point games to maintain their position in the standings.

It is now 12 games since interim Thunder Coach Scott Brooks shifted Kevin Durant from shooting guard to his natural position, small forward. While it is true that in certain situations the small forward and shooting guard have interchangeable roles it is also true that Durant had never played shooting guard in his entire career prior to entering the NBA--and that means that the aspects of that position that are not interchangeable with playing small forward are completely alien to him. Why would anyone take a rookie out of his comfort zone? That makes no sense and I said so from day one.

I spoke with Durant prior to his second game at small forward. When I asked him about the position shift he initially gave a politically correct answer--"Wherever coach puts me I just want to come out and play hard." However, when I gently probed a little deeper and suggested that playing a position he had never played before must have been an adjustment, he told the real story: "Exactly. Playing against the smaller guys, guarding them on defense, and then having little guys who could reach up under me and guard me--it was an adjustment. It was something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now."

When you watch Durant on TV, perhaps you just see a very talented player who dominated college basketball but when you see him up close you realize that he is still just a kid--a gifted kid, but a kid nonetheless. He is earnest, hard working and soft spoken but--like all gifted kids--he needs the right support system around him in order for his gifts to fully mature. Putting him in the right position is an important first step; obviously, the next step is assembling a better supporting cast to complement his game.

In the past 12 games, Durant has had 10 or more rebounds three times after only reaching that level once in his rookie season (in the final game of the year). He also had a 41 point outing that was one short of his single game career-high. Here are some of Durant's numbers after 12 games as a small forward:

24.7 ppg, .466 field goal percentage, .511 three point field goal percentage, 6.3 rpg.

Compare that to his rookie production at shooting guard:

20.3 ppg, .430 field goal percentage, .288 three point field goal percentage, 4.4 rpg.

Considering the superficial quality of NBA analysis in many circles, it does not surprise me at all that some people still dismiss the significance of Durant's position change. Occam's razor suggests that, all things being equal, the simplest solution is usually correct. I have said all along that Durant should play small forward. As soon as Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo as Coach, the first and most significant change that Brooks made was moving Durant to small forward--and Durant's production has improved dramatically. If the position change is irrelevant, then why did Brooks do this immediately and why has it borne such dividends?

Considering those facts, it makes no sense to go searching for explanations other than the obvious one: I was right about this from the beginning.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.1 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, LAC 12.4 rpg
3) Andris Biedrins, GSW 12.0 rpg
4) Zach Randolph, LAC 11.2 rpg
5) Troy Murphy, IND 11.1 rpg
6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.0 rpg
7) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.8 rpg
8) Andrew Bogut, MIL 10.7 rpg
9) David Lee, NYK 10.6 rpg
10) Al Jefferson, MIN 10.2 rpg
11) Yao Ming, HOU 9.9 rpg

15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.5 rpg
16) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.3 rpg

17) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 9.3 rpg

19) Andrew Bynum, LAL 9.0 rpg

31) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.6 rpg

45) LeBron James, CLE 6.7 rpg
50) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.4 rpg

Dwight Howard will likely own this category for years to come, barring injury. Marcus Camby had at least 13 rebounds in six straight games--culminating with a career-high 27 versus Chicago on December 17--to soar up to the second position.

There is a lot of discussion--mainly led by "stat gurus"--about how Allen Iverson is destroying the Pistons. Last year, the Pistons ranked seventh in rebounding differential (+2.3 rpg). This year they rank 22nd in that category (-2.2 rpg). Their leading rebounder last year, Antonio McDyess (8.5 rpg), has only played six games this year and is working his way into condition. The Pistons depend on Rasheed Wallace to play power forward/center but he has never really rebounded like one; this season he is averaging 7.6 rpg and has had six or fewer rebounds in each of Detroit's past five games.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.9 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.1 apg
3) Jose Calderon, TOR 9.0 apg
4) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.6 apg
5) Steve Nash, PHX 8.3 apg
6-7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.2 apg
6-7) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.5 apg
8) Rajon Rondo, BOS 7.3 apg
9) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.2 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DEN/DET 7.0 apg

The playmaking leaderboard is always the most stable one but there was a big addition this time: Deron Williams has returned to action and played enough games to qualify to be listed, so he zoomed up to second place.

There is a .6 apg drop off to 11th place, where rookie Derrick Rose resides, just .1 apg ahead of Devin Harris and LeBron James.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 AM

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Alexandra Stevenson's "Rebirth" as Julius Erving's Daughter

When I was growing up, I thought that Julius Erving was the perfect basketball player, someone who had an amazing skill set: otherworldly leaping ability, huge hands, quickness, the tenacity to battle bigger players for rebounds, the vision/hand eye coordination to make great passes, a solid shooting stroke. He was quite literally poetry in motion as he glided to the hoop for a slick finger roll or a powerful slam dunk over anyone who dared to get in his way.

I used to dream of playing alongside Erving with the Philadelphia 76ers and I even remember calculating how old he would be if I left school early and went to the NBA (hey, I was just a kid and you can't begrudge a kid his dream). I was so disappointed when I saw a 33 year old Erving tell Cheryl Miller (then a college star at USC) that he had no plans to be a "marathon man" and that he knew that the end of his career was approaching (Erving retired four years later).

In the great, underrated TV show "Wiseguy," Ken Wahl's character Vinnie Terranova spoke about dreaming as a kid of playing center field for the Yankees. Someone asked Terranova--who was in his early to mid 30s--when he gave up that dream and Terranova immediately replied that he had never given it up. That pretty much sums up how I feel about playing alongside Erving--and if you believe in Hugh Everett's "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics--then perhaps there is some parallel universe in which I developed enough lateral quickness to play in the NBA and Erving decided to extend his career past the age of 40 a la Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

On a less whimsical note, in addition to Erving's on court prowess it also seemed like he was the perfect family man, someone who always made the right moves off the court as surely and confidently as he made the right moves on the court.

Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect player or a perfect man--but being imperfect does not stop someone from being great, nor does it preclude finding redemption for one's shortcomings.

In his famous ESPYs speech, Jim Valvano said that every day you should do something that makes you think, something that makes you laugh and something that brings you to tears (of happiness or sadness). In other words, every day of your life you should experience life with as many senses and emotions as possible.

Tom Friend's story about Julius Erving's reconciliation with his daughter Alexandra Stevenson is a great piece of journalism and as you read it you will surely more than fill Valvano's daily "quota":

Reaching Out

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:06 PM

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Cavs Are "Mo" Better

The Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers have understandably received a lot of attention this season. After all, last year's NBA Finalists are both on pace to equal or surpass the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' remarkable 72-10 won-loss record. However, right behind the Celtics and Lakers are the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that has the defensive mindset, tenacity on the glass and superstar leader (LeBron James) necessary to be a championship contender.

The Cavs made it to the NBA Finals in 2007 and since that time Danny Ferry has almost completely turned over the roster, making upgrades at several positions and adding quality depth--but the biggest change may be the smallest player he acquired: point guard Mo Williams.

You can read more about Cleveland's improvement--and why Mo Williams has been so important to the team--in my newest article for CavsNews:

Cavs are "Mo" Better

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:26 PM

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Charting Assists for Chris Paul and Tony Parker in New Orleans' 90-83 Victory Over San Antonio

I had it all planned out: Wednesday's Hornets-Spurs game featured a showdown of premier point guards Chris Paul and Tony Parker, so I decided to chart the assist totals of both players and see if the scorekeeper followed rule book procedures in general or if he favored the home town player (Paul in this case).

Of course, when charting assists it helps if the teams actually score some points; San Antonio led 15-14 after the first quarter and 42-37 at halftime. Chris Paul was credited with two first half assists, while Tony Parker was credited with no first half assists and suddenly my research project was turning into Geraldo Rivera's tour of "Al Capone's vault." That is not to say that the point guards were not playing well--Parker scored 14 first half points on 6-8 field goal shooting, while Paul had 10 points on 5-9 shooting--but the first half hardly provided much evidence regarding how well or how poorly assists are being tracked.

Fortunately, things picked up quite a bit in the second half, as Paul was credited with seven assists in the third quarter alone, while Parker was credited with three third quarter assists. Paul had three fourth quarter assists as the Hornets rallied from a nine point deficit to defeat the team that eliminated them in last year's playoffs. Parker had one fourth quarter assist.

According to the boxscore, Paul finished with 12 assists, while Parker finished with four assists. Here is how I would have scored those 16 plays:

Chris Paul's 12 Assists

1: Antonio Daniels layup, :49 1st q: Incorrect; Daniels received Paul's pass at the three point line, took two dribbles and scored a contested layup. An assist is supposed to be a pass that leads "directly" to a score (see below). The issue is not how many dribbles Daniels took but the fact that he had to use his individual skills to create the shot, as opposed to Paul creating the shot with his pass.
2: Rasual Butler three pointer, 2:59 2nd q: Correct; this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.
3: Tyson Chandler dunk, 10:56 3rd q: Correct; Paul's pass created the scoring opportunity.
4: David West jumper, 9:25 3rd q: Correct; another straightforward catch and shoot play.
5: West jumper, 8:15 3rd q: Correct; again, this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.
6: Chandler dunk, 6:20 3rd q: Correct; Paul made a sweet alley-oop lob.
7: Butler three pointer, 4:58 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
8: Hilton Armstrong dunk, 2:08 3rd q: Correct; Paul made a slick bounce pass through traffic after a screen/roll play with Armstrong.
9: James Posey three pointer, 1:04 3rd q: Correct; Paul drove into the lane and then made the kick out pass to Posey.
10: West jumper, 6:25 4th q: Correct; Paul made a bounce pass to West for the catch and shoot jumper.
11: West three pointer, 4:36 4th q: Correct; Paul made a cross court baseball pass to set up West for the open shot.
12: Posey three pointer, 1:06 4th q: Correct; Paul drove into the lane and kicked the ball out to Posey for a dagger three that put New Orleans up 85-79.

Tony Parker's Four Assists

1: Roger Mason jumper, 11:08 3rd q: Incorrect; Parker passed to Mason, who took two dribbles before making a contested shot.
2: Matt Bonner three pointer, 7:54 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot play.
3: Manu Ginobili three pointer, 3:36 third q: Correct; catch and shoot play.
4: Bonner jumper, 5:04 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot play.

Overall, of the 16 credited assists for Paul and Parker, 14 of them were by the book and two of them were incorrect. That is a better ratio than what I previously observed (see below). It is interesting that Paul and Parker each received one generous ruling (i.e., there was no detectable hometown bias in the scorekeeping of their assists). One caveat that I would offer before saying that all is well is that in this game there were not a lot of catch, multiple dribble and/or fake and shoot plays that resulted in made baskets; those are the kinds of plays that I have observed being scored incorrectly in previous games (and two such plays were scored incorrectly in this game).

What I would like to see is a strict, universally applied definition of an assist that justly awards playmakers who are truly creating scoring opportunities but does not pad the statistics of players in situations where they were simply the last person to pass the ball to a scorer who created his own shot by virtue of his skill set.

Here are some of my previous posts in which I charted how assists were recorded:

David West Dominates as Hornets Throttle Spurs, 101-82 (David West scores 30 points while making 13 field goals; Paul is credited with assists on seven of those 13 field goals--three were correct, one was marginal and three were clearly wrong, including one in which West received the ball from Bonzi Wells, not Paul!).

Manu is the Man as Spurs Eliminate Hornets (Paul is credited with 14 assists but should only have been credited with nine).

Smooth All-Around Performance by Paul Lifts Hornets Over Heat (Paul is credited with 13 assists but should only have been credited with 11).

To summarize, prior to this post I charted Paul's assists in two playoff games and one regular season game, all three of which were played in New Orleans. Of the 34 plays that I observed when Paul was credited with assists only 23 of them fit the rule book definition of an assist. For those who don't know what that definition is, here is a passage that was originally posted on NBA.com in 2002:

An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement of the statistician, the last player's pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player's pass led to the field goal being made.

The rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the pass is supposed to "directly" lead to a basket. Every fake, dribble and move that the recipient makes after getting the ball makes that "direct" connection more and more tenuous. If the recipient is running down court uncontested and his teammate passes him the ball, then the number of dribbles he takes is irrelevant: he is meeting no defensive resistance and he clearly would not have scored without receiving that pass--but if a player is running down court, receives a pass, does a crossover dribble to shake one defender and then twists and turns to lay the ball up over another defender, then the pass did not really "directly" lead to the score because the scorer did most of the work. If the scorer does most of the work then the passer should not receive credit for an assist.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:11 AM

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Lakers Slip Past Energetic Knicks

The L.A. Lakers overcame a sluggish start and a 15 point halftime deficit to defeat the New York Knicks, 116-114. Kobe Bryant scored 28 points on 12-22 field goal shooting and added seven rebounds and six assists; he had nine points and two assists in the last 7:33 of the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol did not play due to strep throat, so Lamar Odom received his first start of the season. Despite being slowed by an upper respiratory infection, Odom contributed four assists and had season-highs in scoring (17 points) and rebounds (12). Derek Fisher scored 15 points and had a team-high seven assists. Andrew Bynum had 13 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots but also committed several defensive lapses on screen/roll plays, an ongoing problem for the Lakers and most likely one of the reasons that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson sometimes benches Bynum down the stretch of close games.

Nate Robinson led the Knicks with a season-high 33 points, making all 12 of his free throws. David Lee and Quentin Richardson scored 18 points each, while Chris Duhon added 12 points and 11 assists. The Knicks shot 13-31 from three point range (.419) but were only 2-8 from behind the arc in the second half.

The Lakers, who struggled mightily on defense for most of the game, trailed 37-26 after the first quarter. Early in the season, some commentators breathlessly raved about the Lakers' "new" defensive scheme but when I recently spoke with Lakers commentator Stu Lantz and Lakers assistant coaches Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons about the Lakers' defense they made several important observations:

1) Lantz said, "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...I think that they (the Lakers) have a step to go to get to the Celtics’ level because of the consistency with which they play."

2) Hamblen observed that the Bulls' championship teams for which he was an assistant coach had several "lock down" defenders who could handle their assignments without help but that this Lakers team does not have as many "lock down" defenders so it is vital to incorporate help schemes into their overall defensive game plan to compensate for that and prevent their big men from getting into foul trouble.

3) Cleamons echoed Hamblen's point, saying, "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."

Cleamons dismissed the idea that the Lakers are using a "new" scheme: "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."

Speaking in general terms about how the Lakers compare to great teams that he has played on (1972 Lakers) and coached (assistant to Phil Jackson with seven different championship teams), Cleamons frankly admitted, "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."

The bottom line is that the Lakers do not play defense with the same intensity as the Celtics do and the coaching staff has not so much devised a "new" scheme as it has tried to come up with a plan to help the non-"lock down" defenders understand when and how to give help. The Lakers are also not nearly as physical a team as the Celtics are; that is something that will not likely change, so the Lakers have to find ways to be effective on defense by taking advantage of their length and quickness to make up for the reality that they are not going to wear teams down by pounding on them the way that the Celtics do.

What exactly went wrong defensively in the first quarter when the Lakers gave up 37 points? I could probably write a book about that but let's just look at two instructive examples:

1) At the 4:29 mark of the first quarter, Robinson received a pass outside of the three point line on the left baseline. Fisher shaded him to the baseline, denying him a drive to the middle. If you watched closely, you could see and hear Bryant pointing to the baseline and instructing Bynum to be ready to help. However, Bynum was not paying attention and thus Robinson drove in for an uncontested layup. Someone who does not understand NBA basketball might ask, "Why did Fisher just give up the baseline and let Robinson drive right by him?" In high school, you may have been taught to play defense with your foot on the baseline and to force everything to the middle but that is not the case in the NBA (and often even in college, as Cavs assistant coach Hank Egan told me a couple years ago), because the players are too good and have too many options if you let them get to the middle of the floor with a live dribble. In the NBA, good defensive teams generally "shrink the floor," force the driver to the baseline and then bring over a help defender, while the other three defenders rotate to cut off the passing angles. Generally, it is the center's job to see the whole floor and call out defensive signals, because perimeter players cannot see what is going on behind them but on the Lakers it is usually Bryant who is the defensive signal caller because he is such a great defender (and obviously is much more experienced than Bynum). Of course, even if Bryant "calls" a perfect defensive game it won't matter if his teammates don't do what they are supposed to do--and then uninformed people who only rely on stats and/or their lack of understanding of NBA basketball will be at a loss to correctly assign blame for defensive breakdowns. For instance, when you look at the supposedly objective individual "defensive ratings" keep in mind that a play like Robinson's drive will be "blamed" on Fisher even though he did his job and Bynum missed an assignment.

2) A different kind of defensive breakdown happened at the 2:04 mark of the first quarter. Jordan Farmar let Robinson beat him into the middle while cutting without the ball, Duhon fed Robinson and Robinson scored an easy layup while Farmar fouled him for a three point play. That lapse is Farmar's fault, because he let Robinson move into a prime scoring area, instead of playing good ball denial defense and forcing Robinson away from the middle of the court.

In addition to those two specific plays, the Lakers committed many bad defensive rotations that resulted in wide open three point shots. As Bryant said after the game, during halftime the Lakers talked about needing to not only play harder but also to execute better and stop missing so many assignments.

Although Odom made a very solid contribution overall, he still had some frustrating--and all too typical--lapses, such as blown layups and silly turnovers. If you're a Lakers' fan, you'd almost prefer to see Bryant shoot over two defenders at key moments than pass the ball to Odom, who wavers wildly between being too tentative and too aggressive. One time Bryant fed him for what should have been an easy layup but Odom jumped up and passed the ball to Fisher for a three point shot (that missed). Another time Bryant spoonfed Odom under the hoop but Odom stepped out of bounds--which even the Lakers' announcers noticed and mentioned but the referees somehow missed--and then threw the ball away. In the background, an unidentified voice screamed, "Get tough!"

Speaking of Odom, I wonder what his field goal percentage is on coast to coast drives. That is supposed to be a strength of his but he sure seems to miss a lot of them. On the plus side, Odom is a very good rebounder, defends well (when he avoids silly fouls) and can be a good passer (when he does not commit sloppy turnovers). As a scorer, Odom is at his best when he posts up a smaller defender or when he cuts baseline off of the ball and receives a pass, which last year usually came from Bryant or Gasol.

The Lakers used an 11-2 run to shave the halftime deficit to 67-61 but could not make much more progress than that and still trailed 88-84 at the end of the third quarter. The Lakers' bench players shot 11-28 from the field, though of course the reserve corps was weakened due to Gasol's absence moving Odom into the starting lineup. The deficit increased from four to seven while Bryant rested during the first few minutes of the fourth quarter.

Bryant returned at the 8:31 mark with the Lakers trailing 97-90 and he immediately went to work: first he used impeccable footwork to free himself for a pullup jumper, then he drew a double team and passed to a cutting Odom, who was fouled and made both free throws. A Bryant steal and fast break dunk trimmed New York's advantage to 99-98 less than two minutes after he had entered the game.

After Odom made a bad gamble, giving Al Harrington a free lane for a driving dunk, Bryant answered with a deep three pointer from the left wing to tie the score at 101. Earlier in the game, Bryant went for a steal against Duhon behind the three point line but whiffed and Duhon got into the lane and drew a foul--but there are some important differences between Bryant's gamble and Odom's gamble:

1) Bryant went for the steal behind the three point line. If he got the ball, it would be a sure fast break score (or a foul resulting in two free throws); even if he missed (which he did), there should be time for other defenders to rotate and cut Duhon off. There is no way that a player should be able to drive from behind the three point line deep into the paint before meeting any resistance. Bobby Jones is one of the greatest defenders of all-time and he played on a Sixers' team that went for a lot of steals; he told me, "In the type of defense that we played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don’t think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it’s good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do." So, criticism of Bryant's "gambling" has to be taken in context of the game situation (time, score, the place on the court where Bryant makes the gamble).

2) In contrast, Odom was guarding Harrington just outside of the paint; when Odom whiffed on the steal attempt, he all but guaranteed that Harrington would score. That was a high risk, low reward play, because even if Odom got the steal there probably would not have been a fast break opportunity--he would have obtained possession in about the same area of the floor where he would have gotten a rebound if he simply played good position defense and forced Harrington to miss a jump shot.

After a New York miss, Bryant drew two defenders as a result of a screen/roll with Odom, backed up to spread out New York's defense and then attacked the paint, collapsing the defense to him and opening up Derek Fisher at the three point line. Fisher pump faked as Robinson ran out at him and then hit a pullup jumper to give the Lakers a 103-101 lead. Two Robinson free throws tied the score and then the Lakers ran a screen/roll with Bryant and Bynum. Naturally, both defenders went to Bryant, who again stretched out the defense before passing to Odom, who drove to the hoop for a layup.

Trevor Ariza forced a turnover and received a nice return pass from Odom for a fast break layup that put the Lakers up, 107-103. The Knicks answered with jumpers by Wilson Chandler and David Lee sandwiched around a Lakers turnover. After a timeout, the Lakers ran another Bryant-Bynum screen/roll and Bynum was fouled after Bryant drew the double-team and fed him the ball in the paint. This was a non-shooting foul--though it did put New York into the penalty--and after the inbounds pass the Lakers went back to the Bryant-Bynum screen/roll. Bryant passed to Odom at the foul line but Bynum fumbled Odom's feed and the Knicks stole the ball. Fisher stole the ball from Robinson and drove coast to coast, drawing a foul. Fisher sank both free throws but Lee answered with a pair of free throws to tie the score.

The Lakers isolated Bryant at the top of the key and he again employed his footwork to get Chandler off balance before draining a pullup jumper. Robinson hit a three pointer over Bryant--who had switched on to him after a New York screen/roll had sent the Lakers into scramble mode--to put the Knicks up 112-111. Fisher's shot was swatted out of bounds and Ariza almost threw the inbounds pass away but this turned out to be in L.A.'s favor, because Odom caught the ball and Ariza ducked to the hoop just in time to receive a return pass from Odom for a layup. The Lakers got a stop and after a Bryant-Bynum screen/roll Bryant fed Ariza for an open three pointer that clanked off of the rim, giving the Knicks the opportunity to go for the win with 26 seconds left. Robinson missed a running shot in the lane and Ariza snared the rebound and passed to Bryant, who passed ahead to Fisher, who ran some precious seconds off of the clock before being fouled. Fisher, the second best free throw shooter in the NBA this season, calmly made both shots. After a timeout, Fisher fouled Robinson before he could go into his move or shoot a three pointer. Robinson made both free throws.

Ariza again struggled with the inbounds pass before making a dangerous throw into the backcourt to Fisher. Robinson almost stole the pass and then promptly fouled Fisher, who missed the first shot and made the second. The Knicks had no timeouts left and Duhon's three quarter court heave came up short at the buzzer. In the first half, the Lakers tried a lot of different things offensively but when it came down to winning time in the last seven minutes, Bryant was the focal point of the offense, either scoring on his own or creating scoring opportunities for his teammates, opportunities that they could not likely have created on their own.

During an NBA TV interview after the game, Bryant said, "It was a good game for us. We needed a game like this...We had to show a lot of patience, a lot of poise, not get flustered or anything like that." Chris Webber asked Bryant how he reacted to losing in the Finals and what his mindset was in the offseason heading into this campaign after suffering such a painful defeat to the Celtics. Bryant answered, "It's exciting." Webber and Gary Payton chuckled but Bryant said, "I'm being real with you. It's exciting. It's exciting, because we're there. We're close. It's not one of those things where you hang your head and you say, 'Man, if we only did this or we only did that.' The hell with that. That's over with. It's done with. We're right there, so let's turn it up another notch and let's get excited about this. We have a great opportunity, so let's go get it this year. We had a great opportunity, we went for it, it didn't happen and there are some things we can do better. So, now we have to understand that. We have to be realistic about it. Boston was a better defensive team. We have to make those adjustments and get better in those areas if we want to have that parade and it's as simple as that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:17 AM

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Many Bloggers Owe Derrick Coleman an Apology

I recently shared with you a story about all of the good work that Derrick Coleman has been doing in Detroit since he retired from the NBA. It was surprising and disturbing to see recent posts by several bloggers stating--in a mocking fashion--that Coleman is in dire financial straits. Those posts came after someone found an ad for "The Derrick Coleman Estate Sale" and simply assumed that this meant that Coleman is having financial problems. Apparently, no one bothered to actually contact Coleman or the company that is conducting the sale in order figure out what is really going on before rushing to be the first to lampoon Coleman.

The truth--as reported in the Detroit Free Press today--is that Coleman is not going bankrupt and is not having financial problems. He is selling furniture from his New Jersey home, a residence he purchased when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers; that furniture has been in storage since Coleman moved back to his native Michigan. Sherwood Studios, which is conducting the sale, has furnished Coleman's homes since he became an NBA player; Dave Bing introduced Coleman to Mark Morganroth, the owner of Sherwood Studios.

This is yet another example of why I have repeatedly said that I'd rather be the last person to report a story if that is what it takes to actually get the facts straight so that I can make appropriate, relevant and accurate commentary about it. It is unfortunate that so many bloggers are so desperate to generate page views with snarky comments that they rush to make posts before getting their facts straight. Hopefully, the bad publicity that they generated about Coleman will not negatively impact his ability to continue to work to revitalize inner city Detroit.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:12 PM

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Catching Up With...Dave Bing

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

Dave Bing is not only a Syracuse legend and a member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List; he is also a very successful entrepreneur and a community leader. His company, the Bing Group, has annual sales well in excess of $300 million, making it one of the largest African-American owned corporations in the United States. Bing showed his determination and perseverance at a young age, overcoming a serious injury to his left eye that he suffered as a child. “My parents couldn’t afford to get me into the hospital for an operation, so it just healed naturally but it left me with blurred vision,” Bing recalls.

Bing grew up in Washington D.C., which was a hotbed of basketball talent, and he honed his game by watching and playing against many outstanding local players. His favorite player as a youngster was Elgin Baylor: “We were from the same high school and the same neighborhood. Obviously, there was a big difference in our sizes, but Elgin was the kind of player who I tried to model my game after, trying to understand how to play every facet of the game. When I was coming up in D.C. we had an unbelievable amount of great players at both the high school and college levels--John Thompson, Tom Hoover, Ollie Johnson, Freddie Hetzel, Marty Lentz. Then there were the guys at Notre Dame: Austin Carr, Sid Catlett, Collis Jones, Kenny Carr. All of us are from the same area—plus Fatty Taylor and Bernie Williams—so we kind of grew up together and played against each other. When we left D.C. we were ready.”

Bing averaged 22.2 ppg and led Syracuse to a 17-8 record and an NIT berth in 1963-64, his first varsity campaign. His roommate that year only averaged 5.2 ppg but he would develop into a pretty good player and an even better coach: Jim Boeheim. “Jimmy was one of those players who was just totally underrated,” Bing says. “He came to Syracuse as a non-scholarship player and he did not get a scholarship until his sophomore year. We roomed together as sophomores and juniors and became very good friends and talked basketball quite a bit. It was evident to me way back then that Jimmy would become a good coach. He was a steady player. He was smart in that he knew how to get open and he was a good shooter. Whenever I drove to the basket he was smart enough to get to the open spot and he could put it down. He had a very good senior year (14.6 ppg, .565 shooting from the field).”

The Orangemen were ranked seventh in the nation prior to the 1964-65 season but started out just 2-8. Syracuse rallied to win 11 of its last 13 games but a 13-10 record was not good enough to qualify for postseason play. Bing averaged 23.2 ppg, including 45 points—then a school single-game record—in a triple overtime win over Colgate.

Bing and Syracuse bounced back to have a fantastic 1965-66 season. He ranked fifth in the nation in scoring (28.4 ppg) and was a consensus All-American, helping the Orangemen to set an NCAA record by averaging over 99 ppg. Syracuse began the NCAA Tournament by defeating Davidson, 94-78. “Davidson also had an All-American player, Dick Snyder,” the 6-3 Bing says. “There was a big thing about Snyder going against me but we played two different positions so we never really guarded each other. Davidson also had a couple of really big guys. One of those guys—who was about 6-10—went up for an easy shot under the bucket at the beginning of the game and I came up from the other side and pinned the ball against the backboard; I think that set the tone for that particular game. I can remember that play pretty vividly. We won and we moved on to play Duke, which was obviously a great team. I didn’t realize until I became a pro that the guy who set up the defense against Syracuse was none other than Chuck Daly. Chuck reminded me that the whole game plan for Duke was to double or triple team me to make sure that I wouldn’t score points. He said, ‘You were an unselfish player, so we knew that if we got the ball out of your hands that we had a good chance of winning.’” Duke ended Syracuse’s run with a 91-81 win in the Sweet Sixteen.

The Detroit Pistons selected Bing with the second overall pick in the 1966 draft. He averaged 20.0 ppg and 4.1 apg en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. Bing led the NBA in scoring (2142 points; 27.1 ppg) in his second season, ranked fourth in assists (509; 6.4 apg) and joined Oscar Robertson on the All-NBA First Team. For six straight years, Robertson and Jerry West had been the First Team guards. Bing got his first taste of NBA playoff action that year, facing the Boston Celtics, who had won nine of the previous 11 NBA championships and had four Hall of Famers in their lineup (Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Bailey Howell). Bing was not intimidated by the prospect of competing against them: “The fortunate thing is that during that second year I had an outstanding year, so I wasn’t really that nervous when I got into the playoffs; you’re young and you’re not afraid of much of anything. I surely had a tremendous amount of respect for the Celtics and Russell in particular.”

Detroit took a 2-1 lead in the series but Boston won the next two contests, setting up an elimination game for the Pistons at home in game six. Bing struggled in the first half, scoring just seven points, but he set a franchise playoff record with 37 second half points (his 44 total points are also a franchise single-game playoff record). One moment in particular stands out for Bing from that game: “I’ll never forget one time when I drove to the hoop and made a basket and Russell said, ‘That’s the last one—don’t come back in here again.’ I was smart enough to pay attention to him and shoot in between jump shots or long jump shots and didn’t go back to the basket to challenge him.” Despite Bing’s heroics, Boston closed out the series with a 111-103 win and went on to win the championship. Bing’s anecdote seems to suggest that Russell not only affected and intimidated lesser players but also the very best players in the game. Asked if that is an accurate statement, Bing replies simply, “Absolutely agree.”

Bing ranked among the league leaders in scoring and assists in each of the next three seasons, but the Pistons failed to qualify for the playoffs. The Pistons seemed poised to have a good season in 1971-72: Bing was coming off another All-NBA First Team selection, second year center Bob Lanier was about to become one of the league’s top players and the Pistons had narrowly missed the playoffs in 1970-71 despite posting a fine 45-37 record. These hopes came crashing down when Bing suffered a detached retina in his right eye during the preseason. “The team of doctors basically asked me not to think about playing again—but at the age of 27 and the top of my career, I never gave that a second thought and I was able to play another seven years,” Bing says. “I wasn’t the same player. I think that I became a better all-around player but never the prolific scorer that I was before that injury. I had to play the last seven years of my career with blurred vision, basically, in both eyes.” He missed a total of 37 games and the Pistons’ record plummeted to 26-56.

Bing found a silver lining in his plight: “I had to concentrate more on other phases of the game and I think that’s what made me a better all-around player. I wasn’t the scorer that I had been prior to the eye injury but I think that my assists went up, my free throw percentage went up and I became better defensively and I think that just because I couldn’t see as well and shoot as well that I focused on other parts of the game.” He shot over .800 from the free throw line for three straight years, a level of accuracy that he had never achieved prior to having the detached retina, and Bing had four of his five best apg averages after suffering that injury. How did he improve his free throw shooting despite his vision problems? Simple—free throw shooting is different from field goal shooting because it involves a fixed target and there are no defenders, so just by improving one’s concentration and mental focus one can shoot quite accurately from the free throw line even if the rim looks a little blurry.

Bing only missed a total of three games in the next three seasons. Lanier became the team’s top scoring threat but Bing was a solid number two option (averaging 22.4, 18.8 and 19.0 ppg) in addition to ranking third, sixth and second in the league in assists in those years. The Pistons endured a heartbreaking 96-94 game seven loss to the Chicago Bulls in the 1974 playoffs and lost to Seattle in the first round of the 1975 playoffs. What is the difference between being a good, solid NBA team and being one of the teams that seriously contends for an NBA title? “Number one, I think that you have to be very fortunate in having the right kind of role players,” Bing replies. “Almost every good team has a star or two, but you have to have good role players. Then, I believe that you have to be lucky that you don’t have any major injuries. All of the good teams have injuries because the season is so long and your body gets torn up and worn down but the timing of injuries is important. You will see that a lot of the good teams are healthy in time for the playoffs and they will usually have their best players available for the championship series. But I think that the most important thing outside of having good players is making sure that you have the right kind of role players. At this level it is very easy to get jealous of each other because somebody is getting all of the press and whatever else. The good organizations, the good coaches and the good teams know how to get players to play their roles.”

The Pistons traded Bing to the Washington Bullets just prior to the 1975-76 season. He won the 1976 All-Star Game MVP and helped the Bullets make the playoffs in 1976 and 1977 before finishing his career in 1978 as a Boston Celtic. Some players struggle to adjust to life after their playing careers end, but Bing prepared for several years to make the transition as smooth as possible: “In my era, the kind of dollars that were paid then would not set you up for the rest of your life, so I had to work in the off-season and get some training. I continued to do that even as my basketball career progressed and improved and I made more money; I continued to work in the off-season, which I think was the best thing for me because it allowed me to get exposed to business and get exposed to people outside of basketball. I think that was very helpful. You have a lot of downtime as a professional athlete, so I always read a lot to try to make sure that I improved my vocabulary. I tried to understand the principles of business. I think that all of those things helped prepare me for the eventuality of retiring from the game and moving into another career.”

Bing applied the knowledge that he learned to found his own company, Bing Steel, in 1980. Bing Steel purchased steel from various mills and shaped it to order for its customers to use in creating their own finished products. Bing had just four employees when he started operations but he did $1.7 million of business in his first year. President Ronald Reagan later honored Bing as the National Minority Small Business Person of the Year. Bing eventually became involved in manufacturing and real estate and renamed his company the Bing Group.

Not surprisingly, Bing does not think that current or retired players should be content to entirely hand over their financial affairs to others: “I don’t think that you should ever depend on somebody else to manage everything for you. You have to accrue a certain amount of knowledge yourself. Letting other people manage your money is not a problem as long as you know how to manage them. Make sure that you understand money, finance and banking. I don’t think that it is a matter of intellect at all but we become lazy. We don’t check—we are too trusting in some cases, also. There are a bunch of guys who take advantage of that and I don’t blame them 100%; I blame us for not keeping them in check in some cases. One of the tough things now is that we have so many young guys who don’t have four years of college and maturity. They are coming out of high school or after their freshman year of college and they are getting exposed to a lot of things that they don’t know about.”

Bing wishes that current players had a better understanding of how to transform their tremendous income into tangible economic power: “I think—and one of the things that I have said at different player conferences—that most of the guys today, particularly the star players, because of the money that they are making today, are entities unto themselves. There are a lot of businesses that don’t make the kind of money that these guys command on an annual basis. One of the things that I push for is that if four or five of these high paid players would get together they would have enough capital, enough assets, to be able to go out collectively and buy Fortune 500 companies. They could really make a real difference in urban America—and make money doing that. We just have to get these guys to think differently.”

In 1992, Bing, Archie Clark, Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere and Oscar Robertson founded the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Bing is proud of the work that this organization has done and has high hopes for its future: “During my career I always had a great deal of respect for Oscar Robertson just based on the superstar status that he had and how he cared about the lesser player—it wasn’t about Oscar. I had the chance to play with (Dave) DeBusschere when I first got to Detroit and then at the end of my career, my last year, I had a chance to play with Dave Cowens. Archie Clark broke into the league at the same time that I did and Archie is from the Detroit area, so we had a good relationship. The five of us decided that we needed to do something for those players who started the NBA. Those players, because of the timing, did not participate in our pension fund. Those players are at an age when they need to live out the rest of their lives in dignity and not have to worry about begging for money. We made it a point to not only recognize them for the things that they did to make things a little bit easier for us but also to make sure that they could live the rest of their lives with dignity.”

Just as Bing prepared for his retirement from the NBA, he is keenly aware that he will not always be in charge of the Bing Group: “I am in my 26th year in the business. The real key for me right now is to finalize the succession plan. I have three daughters who are in the business and some managers who have been with me for a long time. The key for me now to be successful from a business standpoint is to make sure that there is a solid succession plan.” That does not mean that Bing is resting on his laurels: “In the city of Detroit I have gotten into development. We are building homes and we also have a big development on the riverfront near Cobo Arena, the arena that I played in (with the Pistons). We are about to start construction on 111 high level condos and that’s going to be one of the first high level condo developments on the riverfront in Detroit. We are pretty excited about that.”

Bing is still an avid basketball fan: “Chauncey Billups is a guy who plays the whole game and plays the game the way it should be played. I enjoy watching him. Maybe some people feel that the guy out in Los Angeles (Kobe Bryant) has lost some of his appeal but I think not; I think that he is probably one of the most gifted players that I have seen in a long time. Kobe comes to play and he’s got all the skills. Most recently, Dwyane Wade is another one who comes to mind. It’s unfortunate that T-Mac has been hurt in the last few years because I think that he is a tremendous talent, also. Even though he is nearing the end of his career, Jason Kidd would be another one who could play in any era.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:53 AM

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