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Monday, April 20, 2009

Notes From the First Weekend of the Playoffs

Here 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 PM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Monday, April 20, 2009 7:09:00 PM, Anonymous J said...

I would be very surprised if the Hornets rally. Paul is seriously overrated, and I expect Billups to continue to outperform him. Sure, Melo has played poorly in previous post-seasons, but neither he nor JR Smith will shoot as poorly as they did last night (likewise, Chauncey will not shoot as well). Peja is a shadow of himself, Martin/Andersen ably contained West, and even herculean levels of flopping from CP3 will not make this too competitive. Nuggets in 5 or possibly 6.

 
At Monday, April 20, 2009 7:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

J:

Despite Billups' amazing performance--one that he will not likely come close to duplicating--this was a close game until the third quarter. The question is whether Denver's performance or New Orleans' performance was more of an aberration. I think that New Orleans can play a lot better and that Denver will be hard pressed to play that well again.

 
At Tuesday, April 21, 2009 8:09:00 AM, Anonymous warsaw said...

What about Duncan/Spurs. Duncan is a lot like Pippen with his teammates, and he is clearly the leader of that team.

 
At Wednesday, April 22, 2009 9:57:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

Duncan does seem to be in the Pippen mold in terms of being a supportive teammate.

 
At Wednesday, April 22, 2009 11:39:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Obviously David Thorpe needs to be let go from ESPN like Screamin Smith for the idiocy he displayed with his comments on JJ Redick.

 
At Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Some people question if Howard is too nice to lead a team to a championship"
I would say some people have no idea what it takes to win a championship.

His niceness has nothing to do with developing better and more fluid post moves, reading and reacting to double teams faster and improving his free throw shooting. Does screaming after sending an opponent's shot back to the cheap seats work better than smiling? Will screaming obscenities at Rashard Lewis make him a better rebounder? Or make Jameer Nelson taller?

The "nastiness" and "killer instinct" argument was used when LeBron passed to Donyell Marshall against the Pistons. It was idiotic then, and still idiotic now. Jordan's tough man, bad cop approach didn't cure Kwame's stone hands now did it? Phil Jackson's subtle manipulations didn't either. Larry Brown made Rasheed care for half a season, while McDyess has always cared.
You can prod, and push and scream at other players to work harder, but if he doesn't have it in him, sooner rather than later, he'll tune you out. If he does have it in him, you wouldn't need to be barking at him.

Z

 
At Thursday, April 23, 2009 4:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

The "nastiness" that Kobe feels that the Lakers lack and that Jerry Sloan would like to see more of from his Utah team has nothing to do with "screaming"; it pertains to a certain mindset about how to play the game with toughness.

Another, somewhat related issue is the demeanor that superstars take with their teammates. Is MJ's approach better or is Dr. J's better? Or is the best thing for a team to have a sort of "good cop, bad cop" scenario like the Bulls had with MJ and Pip?

A third issue is how should a superstar balance deferring to his teammates with the need to take over games, which usually means taking on a heavy scoring burden (but could of course also mean rebounding, defending or contributing in other ways).

I agree that the criticism of LeBron for passing to Marshall was asinine and I said so at that time.

MJ's approach did not work with Kwame but it is possible that nothing would work with Kwame because Kwame is simply a limited player. MJ's hard driving attitude indisputably played a role in making the Bulls great, but so did Pippen's more gentle--but still determined--approach.

The issue with Howard is not that he should be screaming or scowling more. The issue is does he take things seriously enough to push himself and his teammates to the limit? Another issue is whether or not he has the mindset to take over games, particularly in the playoffs. There are too many games in which he not only has low scoring totals but also low shot attempt totals. There is a school of thought that says he should be demanding the ball in those situations. Hakeem Olajuwon was not a screamer per se--though he did have a temper, particularly early in his career--but he would demand to get the ball in the post, not for selfish reasons but because he knew that he would either score or else draw double teams that would enable his teammates to have easier scoring opportunities.

 
At Thursday, April 23, 2009 8:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The issue is does he take things seriously enough to push himself and his teammates to the limit? Another issue is whether or not he has the mindset to take over games, particularly in the playoffs."

I seriously doubt that Howard would look like a sculpture if he didn't push himself to the limit. I'm fairly certain that leading the league in rebounding cannot be done by physique alone. As for taking over games and demanding the ball, he's not there yet. His post moves are limited, his freethrow shooting is awful, and he turns the ball over frequently. For him to "demand the ball" now would be irresponsible. Don't get me wrong, I would like to see him get more touches, but perhaps Van Gundy is not yet confident in forcefeeding him in the paint.

WHEN Dwight Howard improves his post game, freethrow shooting, and decision making, a lot of people will attribute it to him gaining a "killer instinct." It's flat out wrong.

On the other side of the equation, Ron Artest has lots of killer instinct. He takes pride in his defense, he doesn't back down. He is also supremely confident in his jump shooting ability. He takes 20 shots per game and totally ignores Yao. Yesterday he started 6-8, finished 8-19.

Z

 
At Friday, April 24, 2009 6:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I'm not convinced that a player's physique alone speaks to his toughness--and I'm not necessarily challenging Howard's toughness, I am just saying that there is a school of thought that questions if he is tough/nasty enough. My main criticism of his game is that he does not punish teams for guarding him one on one. I don't think that it is "irresponsible" for a player who shoots .600 or so from the field to demand touches in the paint, particularly when he is being guarded one on one. He is an All-NBA First Team player; he should be getting the ball in the paint very frequently and he should never have a game with eight or nine FGAs unless he is being triple teamed and his teammates shoot something like 15-20 from three point range.

Ron Artest is a physically tough player but I'm not convinced how mentally tough he is; his attention span seems to wander and he settles for long jumpers instead of going into the paint and using his size. He is at best an average rebounder for his size.

 

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