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Thursday, January 08, 2009

ESPN's NBA/NCAA Announcer Swap Showcases Differences Between College and Pro Hoops

On Wednesday night, ESPN announcing crews consisting of Mike Tirico/Jeff Van Gundy/Mark Jackson and Dan Shulman/Dick Vitale switched roles, with Tirico/Van Gundy/Jackson calling Duke's 79-67 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium over Davidson while Shulman/Vitale called Denver's 108-97 home win over Miami.

Before recapping both games/telecasts, I'm still trying to figure out why Stuart Scott kept pronouncing Curry's name "Steph-on" when the correct pronunciation is "Steph-en" (rhymes with Geffen); similarly, Deron Williams is not pronounced "Dare-on" (Stephen A. Smith still gets that one wrong) and Bryon Russell is not "Byron" (too many people to count have messed that one up over the years). Announcers have game notes and teleprompters, so it should not be that difficult to correctly pronounce two syllable names.

Some fans praise the "atmosphere" of college hoops and refuse to watch the NBA, while other fans enjoy the superior athleticism and level of play featured in the NBA game. I love hoops, period, but I am definitely an NBA guy more than an NCAA guy; the NBA game has the best players, the best teams and, though this may shock casual fans, the best coaches and the best referees. As for the differing "atmospheres," I have never believed that how the crowd is acting or what the fans are chanting should affect my enjoyment of the game--particularly if I am not even at the game, but just watching it on TV; I want to see basketball played at a high level and what happens on the court interests me much more than what is going on in the stands.

Early in the Duke-Davidson game, there were some examples of why the NBA game is superior:

1) The college game is slower and less explosive/athletic.
2) The action is disjointed because of frequent timeouts and, in this particular game, a flurry of early turnovers.
3) College referees often seem like they want to be at the center of the show, calling ticky-tack fouls that add to the disjointed nature of the game and affect player rotations due to early foul trouble.

Then there are the rules differences. For instance, the NBA introduced the semi-circle under the hoop designating the "restricted area" in order to clarify exactly how to make a block/charge call and also to dissuade defenders from arriving too late too close to the hoop and potentially undercutting high flying offensive players. There were several questionable charging calls early in the Duke-Davidson game and Van Gundy suggested that the NCAA would be wise to implement the "restricted area" rule in its game; during NBA games, if a referee calls a charge after a player has passed the ball and the play has continued Van Gundy will deride that as a "college call" and say that it should have been a "play on" situation.

Duke neutralized NCAA scoring leader Stephen Curry early in the game by shadowing him with two players. Van Gundy had a great line when he said that although Davidson Coach Bob McKillop expressed some concern about overutilizing Stephen Curry this season that early in the game Curry was being "underutilized"; NBA teams generally build their game plans around getting the ball to their best players, forcing the opposing team to trap that player and thus creating opportunities for his teammates. Davidson fell behind 5-0, 9-3 and 13-7 before trailing 37-24 at halftime. Curry did not score in the first 13:57 and had just eight points by halftime. Duke extended the lead to 57-31 early in the second half and it looked like this game was going to be a total snoozer but then Curry finally broke loose and he rallied Davidson to within 69-61 with 3:53 left. Duke called timeout and then scored six straight points to end the threat. Curry finished with 29 points (10-22 field goal shooting, 1-8 three point shooting), eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and seven turnovers.

ESPN ran a graphic showing how Jackson and Van Gundy rate Curry (on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best) in terms of point guard skills, defense, shooting and intangibles: Jackson gave Curry 8, 7, 10 and 10 respectively, while Van Gundy gave Curry 5, 4, 10 and 8. Van Gundy's main critique of Curry is that, although he has good court vision, he still makes questionable decisions (i.e., the six turnovers). Van Gundy said that this is not unusual for a player who is making the transition from shooting guard to point guard.

Tirico mentioned that he asked Bob Knight about how well Curry would perform if he played at a school in a major conference and Knight said that Curry would do even better than he is doing now because he would be surrounded by better players. Jackson agreed with that sentiment completely, while Van Gundy agreed in principle but noted that if Curry played for a bigger school right from the start then he would not have had the same opportunity to keep logging heavy minutes while making mistakes/committing turnovers.

I believe that Curry is indeed the kind of player who will do better when surrounded by better players and in that sense I think that his NBA career will stand in marked contrast to J.J. Redick's; the sharpshooter from Duke has been unable to establish himself in the NBA because at that level he cannot create his own shot, create shots for others or defend and there are plenty of other players who--even if they can't shoot wide open shots quite as well as Redick does--are markedly better at all other facets of the game at the NBA level than he is. Curry can pass off of the dribble, he can drive to the hoop and finish with a dunk, he has quick hands and he can slide his feet well enough to at least be adequate defensively at the NBA level. Curry can also dribble down court at full speed, stop and shoot a step back three pointer, which--combined with his ability to handle the ball and drive to the hoop--means that he will be able to get his shot off in the NBA; in other words, his game is very similar to his father's, though I would say that Dell Curry was a bit bigger and stronger while Stephen is quicker and a bit more clever as a ballhandler. In addition to the aforementioned similarities with his father, Stephen Curry also reminds me a bit of Jeff Hornacek, a lights out shooter who could play point guard in a pinch.

Near the end of the game, Jackson declared, "Steph Curry, right now, is a starting point guard in the NBA...This guy has special talent as far as shooting the basketball, he's a willing passer and he competes." Van Gundy sounded a more cautionary note, saying that whether or not Curry starts immediately will depend on which team drafts him and that Curry may struggle a bit in terms of learning to defer to better players after spending most of his college career having free rein to play through his mistakes; essentially, Van Gundy reiterated the reasons that he thinks that in the long run it benefited Curry to go to Davidson as opposed to starting out his college career at a bigger school. Jackson clarified that he did not mean that Curry could start at point guard for any NBA team but rather simply that he is good enough to start at point guard for several NBA teams, particularly the kinds of teams that will have high draft picks.

Right after the Duke-Davidson game concluded, ESPN telecast Denver's win over Miami. Carmelo Anthony sat out due to his broken right hand but a trio of Nuggets led the way with 21 points each (Chauncey Billups, Linas Kleiza, J.R. Smith). Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 31 points, while Shawn Marion had 25 points and 13 rebounds, his best all-around performance this season. Denver jumped out to an 8-0 lead and never trailed while improving to 4-2 this season without Anthony, who previously was hampered by an elbow injury.

The Nuggets historically have enjoyed a strong home court advantage (14-4 in Denver this season), while the young Heat are not a good road team (6-10), so even without Anthony it is not at all surprising that Denver won. The Nuggets face a "good news/bad news" schedule in the next couple weeks: seven of their next eight games are at home but six of those seven games are against teams with winning records; it will be interesting to see if home court advantage is enough to cancel out not only Anthony's absence but also Denver's recent tendency to beat up on sub-.500 teams (17-1 this year) while not doing so great against plus-.500 teams (8-11).

I respect Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman's contributions to the game of basketball and have always been fascinated by the important role she played in transforming Martina Navratilova into an all-time tennis great but--as I mentioned in a recent post--when Lieberman works as a sideline reporter at NBA games she has a propensity to ask questions that do not have much to do with what actually is happening during the game. After the first quarter in Denver, Denver led 27-21 and this is what she said to Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra: "You have got to be pleased. Your offense sputtered early in the first quarter, D. Wade only took four shots. How did you get back in the game?" I'm not sure why Coach Spoelstra would be pleased about a sputtering offense or his superstar, league-leading scorer only attempting four shots, but whether or not these things pleased him he completely dismissed the idea that Miami's offense was the story of the first quarter: "Offensively, that wasn't the problem. Defensively, we gave up so many easy looks. We're lucky that it's actually only a six point game right now. We have to keep on grinding because these guys are extremely dangerous on this court." The real issue for Miami versus Denver (and most other NBA teams for that matter) is that the Heat have an undersized frontcourt and thus have difficulty protecting the paint, so it would have made sense for Lieberman to ask Spoelstra what kind of defensive scheme he planned to use to compensate for that deficiency; if she has watched Miami play this year she would already know the answer (the Heat try to use the quickness of their perimeter players to wreak havoc by being disruptive and going for steals) but such a question would have elicited a response that would be educational for many viewers, which is presumably the purpose of having a sideline reporter in the first place.

Many younger fans may not have been aware that Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons prior to becoming such a well known broadcaster; he also used to do color commentary on NBA games for ESPN but his last NBA telecast was a Boston-Milwaukee playoff game in 1984. It is interesting to watch clips of Vitale from 1984; he has always been energetic but the way he acted back in the day seems positively sedate compared to his persona nowadays. I'm not saying that's bad but the reality is that, deliberately or not, over the years he has accentuated the enthusiasm that he has always felt about the game.

Vitale repeatedly hammered home the point that he considers Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to be the three premier players in the NBA. At one point, he asked Shulman which player he would choose from that trio if he were a GM for a day. Shulman sidestepped the question by asking if he could include Chris Paul in that group but Vitale, with his characteristically robust delivery, replied, "Don't tell me you'd take Chris Paul over those three! I love Chris Paul but you can't take him over LeBron! You can't take him over LeBron! No way!" After they came back from a commercial break, Vitale would not relent, insisting--good naturedly--that Shulman answer but Shulman simply laughed and said, "I'm the play by play guy. You're the analyst. You pick." Vitale said that he loves Bryant and Wade but because of James' age and athleticism that he would take James. That is certainly a valid selection, especially if you are talking about building a team around one player for the next several years--but if you are talking purely about skill set considerations right now then I would still take Bryant over James because Bryant's no-weakness skill set slightly trumps James' superior athleticism but balky midrange/long range shooting touch.

Next, Vitale listed his "Solid Gold Seven," the players who he said could have made him a Hall of Famer as a coach instead of as a contributor: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. "I've been known to screw up some teams," Vitale concluded, "but I couldn't mess those seven up. They're too talented." That list includes a mixture of veterans and young players but it is interesting that Shaquille O'Neal did not make the cut. Vitale said that Piston Hall of Famer Bob Lanier was the greatest player he ever coached. Vitale also pointed out that he had said that the Pistons should have drafted Anthony instead of Darko Milicic and that the Hawks should have drafted Chris Paul instead of Marvin Williams.

It is interesting to compare Vitale's style as an NBA analyst to Jackson and Van Gundy's styles as NCAA analysts. Obviously, each of them are more familiar with the players and the rules from the league that they regularly cover but Jackson and Van Gundy treated the Duke-Davidson game much like they would an NBA contest, discussing matchups, strategies and the skill sets of various players. Vitale talked about those things, too, but he probably spent more time cheerleading than analyzing. That is not necessarily a bad thing but it is probably better suited to the college game than the NBA game. Vitale repeatedly emphasized that NBA players are the best athletes in the world and I believe that this is true but he is not going to break down plays like Van Gundy, Hubie Brown or Doug Collins do. I equally enjoy watching Jackson and Van Gundy do an NBA game or an NCAA game but I probably enjoy watching Vitale do a college game more so than an NBA game. Don't get me wrong, as a one time novelty it was definitely cool to watch Vitale broadcast an NBA game and to hear him touch on the various subjects listed above but if this had been game seven of a playoff series I would have wanted to hear Van Gundy, Brown or Collins breaking down strategy from their perspectives as former NBA coaches.

Overall, the announcer swap was a fun idea and it made for two enjoyable broadcasts.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:06 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Thursday, January 08, 2009 5:04:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Charley Rosen shares your views on the college game as poorly executed with inferior athletes.

In the past, the college game was more palatable because there were more NBA-level talent players, as jumping to the NBA straight from high school was not commonplace.

Only in the last few years has the college game improved slightly because the freshman now have NBA potential, as they're required to spend at least year in college before entering the draft.

 
At Thursday, January 08, 2009 10:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

David DuPree also expressed similar sentiments during his time at USA Today.

I agree with you that the college game was better before the best players started jumping straight to the pros from high school and that the college game has bounced back somewhat now that players have to go to college for at least one season. Still, the level of play, the coaching and the officiating are much better at the pro level. I can understand a fan's passion for a particular school, particularly if it is his alma mater, but I have never understood how anyone could say with a straight face that the college game is better than the pro game in terms of the actual on court product.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 3:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great summary, David. The differences in the pro and college game are dead on. The older I get, the more I enjoy watching the pros play versus the less-developed college game. Of course, March Madness is always fun.

I got a real kick out of your "more sedate" Dick Vitale back-in-the-day comment.

A little story: A few months back, I was showing my 14-year-old son, who follows college ball closely, a videotape of an ACC game from the '80s. He is quite familiar with the maniacal, present-day Dick Vitale, but as we watched the tape, I realized about 15 minutes into the first half that he had no idea that Dickie V was doing the commentary. When I told him who it was, he didn't believe me at first. He couldn't get over the difference! It's pretty amazing how Vitale has in many ways honed his act and become almost a parody of himself.

Anyway, keep up the excellent work.

Luis

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 4:06:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

I don't think the "one-and-done" rule has improved the college game significantly. I thought so when they announced it and I still think so today: one single year means players go through it with their minds in the NBA draft, with no incentives to work hard or to obbey college coaches who have lost all power over them. So you do have a number of players that would otherwise jump to the NBA, but they are still projects, will stay for a few months and will be focused solely in showcasing their skills for the draft.

Maybe two years will do the trick, though. One single season makes it all too evident that you're just commuting through college.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 7:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

That's a funny story; I think that a lot of people would not recognize the "old school" Vitale.

 
At Friday, January 09, 2009 7:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

The one and done rule is hardly a perfect solution but I do think that it has improved both the college and the pro games. It was much better to watch Oden and Durant hone their skills as top freshmen than to have missed the chance to see them play in college and instead have them be even rawer NBA rookies than they turned out to be; the same thing can be said of Beasley and others.

 
At Sunday, January 11, 2009 2:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie


vitale was good and so was van gundy i think vitale was right kobe lebron wade best 3 players with paul and howard 4 and 5 lebron i agree with vitale is the best funny he said he didnt watch much nba basketball he seems to know alot. van gundy was right on curry he would be a starter on every team and out is a lightsout shooter and could be a great pro, duke good davidson isnt that good curry makes them relevant.

vitale should do more pro games he is very energetic and great for the game, mark jackson did a good job as well on the college front.

did you hear jackson say that lebron is second best small forward ever that van gundy agreed and said the ridiclous he was better than larry bird lebron is best player in league one could make a case for kobe i give edge to lebron but he is not better than bird dr j or elgin baylor right now it is comedy he is special and a great player but these espn people be living a dream sometime and act like they know nuthing about the game this was during the celtics telecast he has too have a few rings before you say that i would put him hall of fame now but not as second best small forward

 

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