Nash-O'Neal Suns Truly Define "Quitting"For quite some time, the Phoenix Suns had been pointing to last Sunday's showdown in Dallas as an important game, an opportunity to gain some serious ground in the race for the final Western Conference playoff berth--but after all of the buildup and all of the brave talk of closing out the season with eight straight wins, the Suns gave up 81 first half points en route to an embarrassing, humiliating and pathetic 140-116 loss that all but ended their playoff dreams (the Mavs officially clinched the final playoff spot on Wednesday, though the Mavs are not locked into the eighth position and could in fact move up). The Suns are without question the most disappointing NBA team this season and it is interesting that more attention/blame is not being focused on the two former MVPs who are ostensibly Phoenix' leaders: Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal.
Even with an injured Amare Stoudemire not being available down the stretch, it is inexcusable for a team as talented as the Suns to not make the playoffs--and it should be noted that the Suns were hardly tearing up the league even when Stoudemire played (30-23). With Stoudemire in the fold, the Suns have enough talent to be a championship contender, as they showed last season by going 15-5 down the stretch, including two victories over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Even without Stoudemire, the Suns easily are talented enough to be a playoff team and they should have been fighting for home court advantage in the first round instead of failing to snare the final spot. What the Suns lack is collective mental toughness and a commitment to defense, two flaws that are obviously connected.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich--a four-time NBA champion--recently told me specifically how LeBron James has improved defensively and why that has helped to make the Cleveland Cavaliers a serious title contender: "I think basically he is just taking more pride in it and playing it with more purpose, understanding when stops might be very important and taking it upon himself to set that kind of an example. That's important--when your best player sets a standard, at either end of the court, everybody else follows and it's infectious. I think that he has done that to a much greater degree than he did a couple years ago." Reasoning by analogy, when the best players on a team do not play defense with "purpose" and do not set "a standard" it is only logical to assume that their team will follow suit in that regard as well: say hello to Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and the Phoenix Suns.
Nash and O'Neal focus most of their attention on scoring, not on defense; Nash favors an uptempo offensive style and his "defense" mainly consists of the dangerous maneuver of sliding under airborne players in an attempt to draw charges, while O'Neal is primarily concerned with how many times he receives the ball in the post. When O'Neal first came to Phoenix he talked about taking a complementary role on offense while helping to transform Stoudemire into a superstar but it sure did not take long for O'Neal to begin grumbling that he should be getting the ball in the post more often (even when Stoudemire was still healthy)--which is not to say that O'Neal is no longer effective but merely to emphasize that O'Neal is a lot more concerned about his offensive touches than about doing what has to be done for the team to win. Nash and O'Neal played a major role in running off new coach Terry Porter after just 51 games precisely because Porter dared to suggest that the Suns needed to concentrate more on defense. ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy rightly said that the way that Nash, Stoudemire and Grant Hill refused to buy in to Porter's system is a "blight" on their resumes--and O'Neal surely belongs on that "blight" list as well (ESPN's Marc Stein reported that during one of Porter's speeches to the team O'Neal bragged that things would be done differently after Alvin Gentry replaced Porter, which echoes the open disrespect that O'Neal displayed toward Stan Van Gundy in Miami before Van Gundy got the ax).
O'Neal had an excellent season in 2004-05--I thought that he deserved to win the regular season MVP instead of Nash--and he drew enough defensive attention in the 2006 NBA Finals to give Dwyane Wade room to go nuts and carry the Heat to the title but O'Neal's post-L.A. Lakers resume contains a lot of "blight": O'Neal presided over one of the quickest and largest collapses ever made by a championship team (from championship in 2006 to first round exit in 2007 to worst record in the league in 2008), then he went through an escape hatch to land in Phoenix where he has presided over that team's plummet from Western Conference contender to Draft Lottery participant in a year and a half. O'Neal deserves credit for still being a productive low post scorer at age 37 but the idea that he is a great teammate who everyone loves to play with surely must be questioned in light of what has happened to the Miami and Phoenix franchises under his leadership.
Watching the Mavericks shoot .600 from the field on Sunday versus the Suns as a supposedly aging Jason Kidd lit up Nash for 19 points and 20 assists (in just 30 minutes), one word kept popping into my mind: quitter. That was the allegation that was widely hurled at Kobe Bryant in the wake of the L.A. Lakers' 121-90 loss to (ironically) Phoenix in game seven of the first round of the 2006 playoffs. Bryant scored 23 first half points on 8-13 field goal shooting but in the second half he scored just one point and after the game I predicted that Bryant would be bombarded by criticism; sure enough, several commentators pounced on Bryant for allegedly pouting and quitting in the second half. I refuted those assertions thusly:
The whole scenario is very comical. Critics have spent this whole season--and much of Bryant's career--labelling Bryant a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than winning, despite the fact that Bryant was the primary playmaker on three championship teams. Bryant did not shoot a lot for long stretches of the first four games of the series against Phoenix. Why should nefarious motives be ascribed to him not shooting during the third quarter of game seven, particularly since he was constantly double-teamed? The same guys who are blasting him now would have blasted him even more severely if he had attempted shots with two defenders on him. Mike Lupica made the comment that two defenders couldn't stop Bryant from hitting the game winner in game four, intimating that Bryant must have been pouting to not attempt more shots against double-teams in game seven. Of course Bryant can shoot--and connect--against double-teams. That is one of the things that makes him special and one of the major reasons that the Lakers even made the playoffs--but against Phoenix, Coach Phil Jackson made establishing an inside game the Lakers' top priority. Bryant went along and the strategy worked, to a point. But, as TNT's Kenny Smith astutely observed, guys who are not accustomed to being big time scorers are unlikely to be able to produce high point totals for the duration of a seven game series.
Bryant's production in the fourth quarter of game seven is a moot point, because the game was long out of reach by then; people who are making a big deal of him only attempting three shots in the entire second half are ignoring the fact that the Lakers had no realistic chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, whether Bryant sat for the whole quarter (like LeBron James did on Sunday--see below) or jacked up 15 shots in 12 minutes--even down the stretch of the third it was apparent that only a complete Phoenix collapse could save the Lakers. What happened in game seven is that Bryant played the same way that he played in the Lakers' wins but his teammates failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to score against one-on-one (or one-on-none) coverage while two defenders shadowed Bryant's every move; how exactly is this Bryant's fault?
The LeBron James game referred to in that post was game six of Cleveland's series with Detroit; as it later turned out, game seven of the Detroit-Cleveland series provided an even better comparison with Bryant's game seven performance, as James scored just six points on 1-9 second half shooting in a 79-61 Detroit victory. In the first half of that game, James scored 21 points on 10-15 shooting--virtually identical numbers to Bryant's first half production in game seven versus Phoenix--but in the wake of James' subpar second half no one suggested that James had quit. After the Detroit-Cleveland game I wrote:
Yet I would be willing to bet that no one is going to accuse LeBron of being selfish or quitting or pouting--and don't tell me that this was different because the game was close for a longer stretch of time or that LeBron was being more aggressive than Kobe. LeBron's "aggressiveness" in the second half consisted of taking forced jumpers, committing offensive fouls and attempting off balance drives; it was not a productive aggressiveness. What happened in both game sevens to these superstars is very simple: their teammates did not meet the challenge of playing in a game seven. Neither Kobe nor LeBron could accumulate assists because none of their teammates could make a shot. Their teammates were so inept that the other team could double-team them at will and then send even more defenders once they put the ball on the floor. Kobe did the best that he could to carry his team to a game seven and then to give his team the best chance to win that game seven--and so did LeBron. The question is why will these two performances be written about and discussed in such different terms. The answer is simple: a lot of people don't like Kobe--they are "haters" and whether Kobe shoots 30 times or 3 they will always criticize him.
Why do I blame Nash and O'Neal for the Suns' blowout loss to Dallas on Sunday and the team's disappointing season but not blame Bryant or James for those game seven losses? Simple--Nash and O'Neal have a very good supporting cast this year in Phoenix, while in 2006 neither Bryant nor James had good enough supporting casts to beat Phoenix and Detroit respectively. In fact, it is a tribute to the greatness of both Bryant and James that they forced those series to seven games. James had more help that season than Bryant did but James' supporting cast was clearly neither talented enough nor mentally strong enough to compete with a powerful Pistons team in a series deciding game in Detroit.
Look at the boxscore of the Suns-Lakers game: Lakers not named Kobe Bryant shot 24-75 from the field (and they played even worse on defense than they did on offense). The other four Lakers starters in that game were Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton: Odom remains a talented enigma, Parker is out of the league and Walton and Brown are best suited to being reserve players, yet Bryant led that group to the seventh playoff seed in the competitive Western Conference and then carried them to a seventh game against a bona fide championship contender.
Three years ago, I maintained that if Bryant had played with Nash's supporting cast he would have taken that team to the Finals, while if Nash had been saddled with Bryant's supporting cast he would not even have made the playoffs. We will never be able to test that hypothesis in the real world but I think that the performance of this season's Suns team provides some strong evidence supporting my assertion: Stoudemire started in more than 60% of the Suns' games this season, but even leaving him completely out of the equation, would you take that 2006 Lakers group that Bryant carried to the seventh seed over the Suns' current starting lineup of Nash, O'Neal, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson and Matt Barnes that will miss the playoffs entirely? If you have to think more than a second before answering that question then you are at the wrong website and should go back to ESPN.com, Yahoo! or SlamOnline for your NBA "analysis."
This story would not be complete without mentioning that in the wake of carrying that ragtag Lakers crew to the playoffs, Bryant received more first place votes (22) in the 2006 NBA MVP voting than anyone except for Nash (57) but Bryant finished fourth overall (behind Nash, James and Dirk Nowitzki) because more than 20 voters--one sixth of the pool--left him off of their ballots completely, meaning that they did not consider Bryant to be one of the top five players in the NBA. I will never understand how anyone can objectively look at that season and not conclude that Bryant was clearly the best player in the NBA and it is absurd that anyone could suggest that he was not even among the top five performers.
Why am I talking about the 2006 NBA MVP race and a 2006 Suns-Lakers playoff game in a post about the 2009 Phoenix Suns? Simple--history is important and context is important: that 2006 NBA MVP race is a permanent part of NBA history and the faulty commentary about that 2006 playoff game is still used as a hammer to chisel away at Bryant's reputation; I recently had a discussion with another writer about this year's MVP race and he cited that game as "proof" of a character flaw in Bryant in contrast to LeBron James, who--ironically enough, as noted above--had a virtually identical second half performance in a much closer game seven playoff loss that very same year.
As time passes, the faulty NBA commentary and biased MVP voting from past seasons are being completely exposed, while insights that I offered three years ago that may have been ignored at that time have proven to be quite prescient. I concluded my post about the 2006 game seven between Detroit and Cleveland with this analysis:
Near the end of the season, I wrote an article for ProBasketballNews.com in which I said that Kobe should be voted MVP; I ranked LeBron fifth "with a bullet" at that time. I would move LeBron up to number two after seeing him perform in the playoffs. He is still not good enough defensively to be placed ahead of Kobe. During the ABC telecast of game seven, Hubie Brown repeatedly pointed out that Tayshaun Prince was the one Detroit player who consistently met or exceeded his regular season performance throughout the series. Prince had a superb game seven and he played 47 minutes--which is nothing new for him since he led Detroit in minutes played during the series. Well, who had the primary defensive responsibility on Prince? LeBron James. There was a beautiful play in the second half when Hamilton came off of a baseline screen and received a pass in the lane; LeBron turned his head and Prince cut to the basket, drawing a foul. LeBron's on ball defense has improved a lot and he uses his athleticism to get steals and blocked shots in the open court but his off the ball defense is still not at a championship level. I am sure that he will improve in this area. In one of the post-game press conferences during this series, LeBron talked about not listening to what Charles Barkley or other critics say about his game--but he then listed some of what has been said about him, showing that he is indeed aware of his shortcomings and has worked hard to eliminate them. If their teams improve their rosters just a little bit, Kobe and LeBron will be battling for MVP trophies and championships for years to come.
While it may not have been an entirely bold prediction to suggest that Bryant and James would be top MVP contenders for the next several seasons, how many other people asserted in 2006 that in a short time the Lakers and Cavs would soon be in the hunt for championships? James has methodically and ruthlessly attacked the skill set weaknesses that I mentioned above and in other posts, while Bryant's Lakers upgraded a subpar supporting cast enough so that Bryant is no longer going into gun battles with "butter knives." Bryant and James have consistently done everything in their power to help their teams win, with Bryant continuing to maintain the best all-around skill set in the NBA and James eliminating his few weaknesses one by one; can Nash and O'Neal honestly say the same thing about their performances--not just their offensive statistics but their leadership and their focus (or lack thereof) on defense--for the 2009 Suns?
posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 PM