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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Kobe Talking About Shaq, Shaq Talking About Kobe--and Phil Jackson Talking About Both

One of the most obvious subplots for this year's All-Star Game concerns the reunion for a day of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant with Shaquille O'Neal. For quite some time, O'Neal delighted in taking veiled--and not so veiled--public potshots at his former coach and his former teammate but now every time O'Neal talks about Jackson and Bryant it sounds like a lovefest has broken out. During Friday's All-Star media availability, one reporter even asked Coach Jackson if O'Neal has gotten sentimental in his old (in basketball terms) age and Jackson replied, "I think that he thinks sentimentally about the game and I think that you do that after you've been in the game (for so many years). After you've been in that many All-Star games you start looking back at how much this business has changed in your span of time and you become nostalgic. He should be allowed that."

As for the possibility of O'Neal finishing his career as a Laker, Jackson compared O'Neal to the older version of Robert Parish who played a limited role on a Chicago championship team that Jackson coached (though I'm not sure that O'Neal would consider that comparison to be much of a compliment), concluding, "We always say these old crocodiles--these alligators--who patrol the lane have a long lifespan in our game and it would be great to see him back some day."

Asked if O'Neal is engaging in "revisionist history" with his recent comments praising Bryant and saying that their rivalry was just a shrewd marketing plan, Jackson offered a thoughtful reply: "We had to have a one minded idea to win championships and so everybody is able to put aside individual hopes or aspirations (for) the greater good of the whole. These guys were able to do that and bond in so doing, so those sentiments (expressed by O'Neal) are not false. There are different feelings that come in between sometimes, but the bond that they created at one particular point in time is still there and still renewable. That's what he is talking about, sharing the ball, sharing the defense, sharing the space and time that they each gave each other. So I'm good with that."

Jackson said that the one quality that stands out most about O'Neal is "his sense of humor. He could act like a big clown at times. He's got a great sense of humor and he can make everybody pretty lively at times with his sense of humor."

Naturally, everyone wants to know how long Bryant and O'Neal will be on the court together but Jackson--the man in charge of making that determination--coyly refused to reveal his cards about how he will distribute the minutes: "I can't tell you that. The game has its own element." All he would concede is, "You try to use all of the talent on a team and those are certainly two talented players who can play together. They've done it before." He expects that at first they will "overdo it" in terms of "trying to help each other out too much" but that ultimately they will work well together.

In a recent interview with the Sporting News, O'Neal was asked to talk about the best teammates he has ever had and he replied, "Most ferocious was Kobe. Fiercest, most competitive, it was Kobe. D Wade is second after that." During the media availability Bryant returned the compliment when asked his favorite memory of playing with O'Neal: "We have a lot of similarities in terms of that I am very intense all of the time and--while he is a goofball who likes to have fun--when that light comes on he is a beast and that is the most fun that I had with him, seeing that switch come on. When that light came on he was a guy who was going to try to break somebody's face off during the game. That is what he and I shared." No one asked the natural followup, so I dived in, fully realizing that Bryant would not likely offer a completely candid answer to a difficult and perhaps painful question: "You talked about the difference betwen Shaq's intensity in practice and in games. How much did it bother you that the guy who would want to break someone's face during games did not show that intensity during practice?"

When Bryant answered "Not at all" I think that is the only time that he has lied to me/been in denial about his own true feelings. I don't for one second believe that O'Neal's casual attitude toward practice did not bother Bryant; there is every indication that this infuriated Bryant. That said, perhaps it is wise for Bryant to not publicly delve back into that subject again.

O'Neal can veer from slamming Bryant to praising him as the best player in the game and Jackson can wax eloquently about the bond that O'Neal and Bryant share but I think that Bryant spoke the larger truth in just a few words when he said, "I'm not revisiting that. It wasn't a fun time for me." Bryant, though he was young, impetuous and flawed in some ways--as we all are--was focused on winning right from the start, while O'Neal always wanted to be the life of the party. O'Neal could be extremely focused and dominating when he chose to be but I suspect that this frustrated Bryant even more, because he better than just about anyone could sense what kind of player O'Neal was really capable of being. Bryant did say, "We have a great relationship now and that is the most important thing" but there is no way to go back and win those titles that the Lakers likely would have captured if O'Neal had consistently demonstrated a Bryant-like focus on the task at hand.

Historically, the bottom line will always be that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won three titles together but there will always be speculation about how much more that duo could have achieved. Asked if he ever wonders how many more championships he could have won with O'Neal, Bryant said, "No" but when pressed about the issue he replied simply, "Several more." For someone who is as competitive as Bryant, you know that it has to bother him that O'Neal's casual attitude toward conditioning/staying healthy derailed their partnership so soon.

Quick Hits:
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***Speaking of staying healthy, I asked Bryant how he has adjusted his shooting stroke to compensate for his recent finger injury and if having to make a similar adjustment around this time last year helped him this time. He answered, "This one is OK. I've actually adjusted much better with this one than I did with the pinkie. It feels fine and my stroke feels as normal as it did before I got hurt." He added that suffering through last year's injury "gave me confidence that I can play through it because I've done it before. In that sense, I wasn't nervous or skeptical about being able to get through it."

***Bryant said that the event he is most looking forward to this weekend is the HORSE contest, so I asked him if he would like to participate in it at some point. He scrunched up his face and considered that question for a moment before saying, "I don't know. I don't know. We'll have to see," so I asked him why he is so hesitant and he explained, "Because they've got all these rules and all these things that they put into the games. I just want to play HORSE like in the old McDonald's commercial (featuring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird)."

***While Bryant is still in his MVP-level prime and O'Neal is already well into his declining years--though still a formidable player--Jackson's first great player, Michael Jordan, just officially became a Hall of Fame Finalist. I asked Jackson to reflect on what that means to him personally, since he worked alongside Jordan from very early in Jordan's NBA career. Jackson said, "I was in an audience this morning when a young man of probably 25 talked about growing up watching Michael Jordan and the awe that he inspired in NBA basketball amongst kids. There was a Bird-Magic era and that was a great rivalry and it was wonderful to watch those two play against each other but Michael Jordan was someone you could not take your eyes off of when he played the game. It was just a phenomenon to come watch somebody with that kind of ability to be able to do what he did on the court. We've had a lot of players who had talent--athletic talent--but they've not been able to do the things that he was able to do. I think he has been perhaps the one most significant person in professional basketball in the world. He's a Pele in that sense, so this is a great honor for basketball to have him in the Hall of Fame."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:45 AM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Saturday, February 14, 2009 2:18:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Interesting reading your account of the interviews and then reading this acount of the media day:

"Bryant arrived 45 minutes late for his session with the media and seemed to squirm with every mention of O’Neal’s name. ...They mostly kept their distance Friday. They were in opposite corners of a ballroom for their sessions with the media, with a large curtain dividing the room. They worked at the same community school refurbishment project, but were a couple of hundred yards away performing different tasks.

It will be interesting to watch the dynamic on court.

Any thoughts on the Rook/Soph game yesterday? I missed it, but it sounds like Durant and Beasley played pretty well. I thought Durant looked awfully good in the Thunder's game against the Lakers earlier this week too. OKC remain pretty terrible, but they gave the Lakers a reasonably good game and have a lot of young talent. Another high-ish draft pick used well, and they could be pretty interesting down the road.

 
At Saturday, February 14, 2009 2:59:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

Here's another link I'd be interesting in reading your reaction to:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html?_r=2&hp=&pagewanted=all

Although Lewis doesn't get too much into the nitty-gritty of how the Rockets use stats, it does seem like their analysis of basketball and players involves far, far more than the typical box score numbers that fuel other stats like PER or the WoW crowd, and adjusts for more of the difficult-to-capture aspects of the game. They also seem to recognize the noisiness inherent in +/-, and the tension between what's best for the team and for an individual's own stat categories.

I thought this section in particular was interesting:
How many points a player scores, for example, is no true indication of how much he has helped his team. Another example: if you want to know a player’s value as a ­rebounder, you need to know not whether he got a rebound but the likelihood of the team getting the rebound when a missed shot enters that player’s zone.

Watching games recently, one thing that has repeatedly struck me is how many rebounds are often entirely or scarcely contested and fall inbetween two players on the same team. Aggressive players like Kobe or LeBron often snag the ball first when it was falling right between them and Z or Gasol. While that rebound adds value to their individual stats, it really wasn't a particularly important or skillful play. Maybe it was better for the team that the better/quick ballhandler grabbed the ball first to jumpstart the offense, but grabbing that uncontested rebound from a teammate isn't a particularly valuable act. On the other hand, as the article discusses, Battier's ability to consistently shade his defense to force his opponent to go the "wrong" way and take statistically more difficult shots adds a lot of value, but it doesn't show up in the boxscore (aside from possibly in +/-).

Anyhow, I thought you would enjoy the article. I happen to be a big Battier fan, if only because I've had him on my fantasy basketball team the past couple of years, and he does manage to put up some fairly respectable numbers in statistical categories like steals, blocks and 3pts that are easy to win w/ relatively low numbers.

 
At Saturday, February 14, 2009 5:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

The article that you linked to does not contain the quote that you supplied. Kobe did arrive late for media availability due to some kind of transportation problem; I interviewed other people and then came over to his station shortly before he arrived.

I don't know who made the seating arrangements and I was not at the NBA Cares event but Kobe and Shaq attracted the two biggest media crowds other than Yao, so it made sense to station them away from each other. I just got back from All-Star practice and was literally 10 feet away from Shaq and Kobe as they carried on like long lost best pals; if they are angry at each other now then they are keeping that very well hidden.

Durant had a fantastic shooting performance but there is not a lot of defense in those games. I always attend the Rookie-Sophomore Game but I usually don't write much about it because I always find more interesting topics.

 
At Saturday, February 14, 2009 6:18:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

After carrying the can for everything that went wrong with the Lakers between 2003 and 2007, I'm not surprised Kobe doesn't want to talk about those issues.

Durant really is a special offensive player. He can get his shot off at any time, handles the ball well, and has a very pure stroke. Throw in his length and quickness and his improved shot selection, and he's pretty much impossible to stop. I know there wasn't much defense going on last night but in general his skill as a scorer is pretty scary.

 
At Sunday, February 15, 2009 12:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I'm not surprised, either, but when Kobe said that he and Shaq had similar game-time intensity but that Shaq could be a goofball at practice--which is essentially what I have been saying here for years--the natural follow up question is how much did it bother Kobe that Shaq did not practice with a high level of intensity. I figured that Kobe would dismiss the issue in some way and I had no intention of badgering him (or anyone else) with the same question over and over but the question at least needed to be asked.

This is one of those situations where if you had the one on one access that ESPN and other large outlets have then you can try to get some deeper answers, as opposed to being one voice in a media crowd asking a question but, unfortunately, the outlets with the most resources and most access do not fully take advantage of those things in a journalistic sense and provide truly in depth coverage.

Durant has improved a lot from year one until now. The Rookie-Sophomore Game does not really figure into my calculations of his skill set; a greater indicator is how well he has played since Coach Brooks shifted him back to his natural position, small forward.

 
At Sunday, February 15, 2009 12:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

The Battier article is very interesting and I am sure that I will write something about it after All-Star Weekend is over.

 
At Monday, February 16, 2009 12:22:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

As you think about writing about the Battier article, here is an interesting & relatively short comment thread (17 comments, right now) about the Battier article, with most commenters ripping into Berri & the WoW crowd. Thought you would enjoy:

http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/02/quantifying_shane_battier.php#comments

 
At Monday, February 16, 2009 7:10:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

David - The Battier article got me excited, because I have been totally against "box score manipulation" for so long now (Wages of Wins and PER are the main culprits) I always assumed that what the Rockets were doing was more of the same, but they actually seem to "get" that if you are going to do a statistical analysis, you can't just use "points, rebounds, and assists". If you read the piece, you know that what the Rockets are doing is actually much closer to your detailed basketball analysis than it is to anything like Wow and PER. Whether you agree with them or not, they seem to at least be headed in the right direction, if statistical analysis is to be taken seriously in basketball. I only wish I could see the work they were doing, but I can understand their reluctance to share their data and findings.

 
At Monday, February 23, 2009 5:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

In case you have not seen it, my response to the Lewis article has been posted at ProBasketballNews.com:

The Proper Application of Basketball Statistical Analysis

 

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