Notes From the First Weekend of the PlayoffsHere are some thoughts, notes, and observations pertaining to what we've seen during the first weekend of this year's NBA playoffs:
1) While discussing the Lakers' toughness (or lack thereof), Jeff Van Gundy mentioned the recent Sports Illustrated article about Dwight Howard. Someone asked Kobe Bryant if he would have let Nate Robinson jump over him in the Slam Dunk Contest the way that Howard did; Van Gundy cleaned up the language while noting that Bryant responded very firmly that he would not have done that. Some people question if Howard is too nice to lead a team to a championship. No one harbors such doubts about Bryant, though Bryant is not certain that the Lakers are mean enough or angry enough to win the title. Is it really necessary to be mean and/or angry to be a champion? What do those traits represent in the context of winning basketball games?
This is not necessarily about what kind of person one is away from the court but rather about the disposition and attitude that one has about competing at an elite level. The 1990s Chicago Bulls almost employed a "good cop, bad cop" style of internal leadership, with Michael Jordan taking the "tyrant" role while Scottie Pippen was much more nurturing toward his teammates. Bill Wennington told me that in film sessions if the coaches started to criticize a player for being out of position on defense Pippen would speak up and say that he had told the player to play that way on that particular possession; I have spoken to several members of those Bulls teams who told similar stories about Pippen and who absolutely raved about how supportive he was as a teammate. Everyone on those teams respected Jordan but Pippen was also highly respected and probably more well liked than Jordan within that locker room. Is one approach better than the other? Could the Bulls have won six titles without Jordan being so harsh as he pushed players to be at their best at all times? Would Jordan's fiery ways have been less effective in the long run if Pippen had not been there to offer support and positive reinforcement at times?
Bobby Jones, who won an NBA championship playing alongside Julius Erving, once told me that Erving "was a great encourager of his teammates. He never put anybody down because they couldn’t rise to his level. He would always just encourage everybody to do what they could do and wouldn’t get on them because they couldn’t do what he could do. I remember that at the end of games guys might throw the ball away or miss the last shot or whatever and feel like they lost the game. He would be the first one in the locker room to put an arm around a guy and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get them next time.’ I always really appreciated that about him." Erving won two ABA championships plus an NBA title in 1983 with the 76ers. Would he have won even more championships had he had a harsh attitude like Jordan's? Or did Erving's grace and class bring out the best possible performances from his teammates? Although Erving's demeanor is completely different from Jordan's, Rod Thorn (who coached Erving in the ABA and who drafted Jordan for the Bulls) told me, "He was a tough guy—that is one thing that is not talked about that much when you talk about Julius, because of his great athleticism, but he was a tough guy. I mean he would physically get after guys and play hard. He took a challenge. He played 43-44 minutes a game for us and guarded the best guy on the other team every night and was our leading scorer, so the energy that he expended during a game was much more than the average player did. It was just phenomenal what he did...There are certain guys who were big time players or the best players on their team who were nice with their teammates and others weren’t. Others are more critical or more open. I think that it’s a difference in personalities more than anything. Julius was a very, very competitive person, but that didn’t carry over to teammates. Some guys, it carries over to everybody. They’re just such competitive guys that it carries over to everything. If you were a teammate, you’d much rather have it the way Julius did it."
A further wrinkle in the Jordan-Erving comparison is that it certainly seemed like personal statistics were a lot more important to Jordan than they were to Erving. Does this mean that Jordan was more competitive than Erving or does it mean that Jordan was more selfish? Erving repeatedly demonstrated that he was willing to sacrifice his personal statistics for the greater good of the team, while Jordan always believed that his teams were best served by him scoring 30-plus ppg. Coach Phil Jackson found a way to get Jordan to involve his teammates to some degree while still being able to win scoring titles; Erving did not really care about scoring titles (though he did win three of them in the ABA), so he was very amenable to the idea of being one part of a balanced attack. Would Erving's 76ers have won one or two more titles had he demanded to get the ball enough to score 30-plus ppg as opposed to deferring to his teammates and even comforting them (as Jones mentioned) after they messed up at the end of games?
There are really two separate issues here: a player has to be tough mentally and physically in order to lead his team to a championship but he does not necessarily have to be an "in your face" type of guy. Erving and Jordan both competed fiercely but they related to their teammates completely differently. It does not matter if Dwight Howard has a fun loving personality as long as he has enough mental and physical toughness to do whatever it takes during games for his team to win; I don't know whether or not Howard possesses those qualities to a sufficient degree to lead his team to a championship but just looking at his demeanor alone is not the right way to try to figure that out. As for the Lakers, when Bryant is saying that his teammates need to be angrier or meaner he is not suggesting that they should yell or rant and rave; he wants them to be more mentally focused and he wants them to be tougher mentally and physically.
2) One way or the other, the first round of this year's NBA playoffs is going to break with tradition; historically, home court advantage has been very important in the NBA playoffs but teams that win game one advance nearly 80% of the time: the road teams won four of the eight games ones this weekend, so by the time the first round concludes we will either see an unusual number of teams bounce back from game one losses or we will see an unusual number of underdog teams make it to the second round.
3) The league's leading scorer did not attempt a shot for almost the entire third quarter of his team's blowout road loss after scoring 17 points in the first half. Surely there will be many articles written about how this player quit on his team and describing how he was trying to prove a point to his teammates, right? Actually, those kind of nonsense articles are only written when the player in question is Kobe Bryant. Since it was Dwyane Wade who did not attempt a shot for most of the third quarter, the articles about that game will focus on how inept his supporting cast supposedly is, even though his power forward started for an NBA championship team just three years ago, his center once finished third in MVP voting, two of his teammates will likely make the All-Rookie team and another teammate won the All-Star Weekend Three Point Shooting Contest. I don't think that Wade "quit" but I do think that it would be nice if more of the people who get paid to cover basketball games actually knew what they were talking about and stuck to discussing what actually happened as opposed to slanting their reports to conform to their own biases/agenda.
4) When ESPN's David Thorpe declared that J.J. Redick could start for a playoff team, I don't think that what he had in mind was posting a game-worst -13 plus/minus number in just 6:17 as his team blew an 18 point lead at home in game one of the playoffs. Redick has started five regular season games in his three year career and he has scored three points in 26 minutes in four career playoff games.
5) Chauncey Billups (36 points, eight assists, no turnovers, 8-9 three point field goal shooting) essentially played a perfect game in Denver's 113-84 rout of New Orleans. His heroics more than made up for yet another subpar playoff game by Carmelo Anthony (13 points on 4-12 field goal shooting). Remember when people seriously compared LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony? The sad thing about Anthony is that I cannot think of one thing that he does better now than he did as a rookie; in contrast, James has relentlessly attacked his skill set weaknesses.
6) Five of the eight game ones were decided by at least 13 points. The Pistons and the Jazz are toast in their matchups with the Cavs and Lakers respectively but don't be surprised if the Trail Blazers and Hornets rally.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 PM