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Friday, January 09, 2009

NBA Leaderboard, Part IV

A lot has changed since NBA Leaderboard, Part III; at that time the Boston Celtics were on pace for more than 70 wins but they have dropped five of their six games since losing to the L.A. Lakers on Christmas Day and are now behind both the Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the race for the best record in the league. No team is currently on pace to win 70 games; I suspect that the 1996 Chicago Bulls' 72-10 standard will be safe for quite some time--and that group went 69-13 the next season despite injuries to three of the top five players in the rotation (Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley)!

Also, in less than three weeks Kobe Bryant has shaved more than 1 ppg off of Dwyane Wade's lead in the scoring title race and has moved up from fourth place to third place, meaning that Bryant is still very much in contention to capture his third scoring crown in the past four seasons.

Best Five Records
-------------------

1-2) Cleveland Cavaliers, 28-6
1-2) L.A. Lakers, 28-6
3) Boston Celtics, 29-8
4) Orlando Magic, 28-8
5) San Antonio Spurs, 24-11

Prior to the Lakers' 92-83 win over the Celtics, just about everyone assumed that this game was more important to the Lakers than to the Celtics. I thought the same thing but it is undeniable that the game was also important to Boston--their "Big Three" players each played more than their usual minutes--and it is equally undeniable that this loss sent the Celtics into a slump. Their aura of invincibility was punctured. Boston will surely straighten things out soon but their recent losses could end up being the difference between playing a seventh game at home versus Cleveland (or L.A.) and playing a seventh game on the road. The Celtics not only have to think about the two teams ahead of them but also must be aware of the Orlando Magic, who are only a half game behind Boston and have essentially turned the NBA's "Big Three" into a "Big Four."

Not quite a year ago, I compared Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to Julius Erving and Larry Bird at similar stages of their careers and I concluded, "We can only hope to someday see the best the game offers in a Finals showdown for the ages." A Lakers-Cavs matchup in the 2009 NBA Finals would offer some tremendous story lines and inevitably have a dramatic, history altering conclusion: either Bryant would win his fourth championship (and first post-Shaq title)--moving into very select company--or James would win his first championship, which would no doubt fuel speculation about how many titles he will ultimately capture.

By the way, check out who now owns the fifth best record in the league: the NBA's Rasputin, the "old" team that will not die, none other than the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.7 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 27.4 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 26.9 ppg
4) Danny Granger, IND 25.8 ppg
5) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.7 ppg
6) Chris Bosh, TOR 23.6 ppg
7) Kevin Durant, OKC 23.5 ppg
8) Devin Harris, NJN 23.1 ppg
9) Brandon Roy, POR 23.0 ppg
10) Vince Carter, NJN 22.7 ppg

17) Chris Paul, NOR 20.7 ppg

19) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.5 ppg

22) Dwight Howard, ORL 20.1 ppg
23) O.J. Mayo, MEM 19.9 ppg

25) Paul Pierce, BOS 19.5 ppg

33) Ray Allen, BOS 17.7 ppg

45) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.1 ppg

Since the previous Leaderboard, Dwyane Wade's scoring average has dropped by .7 ppg, LeBron James' scoring average has gone up by .1 ppg and Kobe Bryant's scoring average has increased by 1.9 ppg. While some people are trying to write Bryant off or suggest that he has lost his athleticism it may turn out that he is marching toward a third scoring title. Defending scoring champion James will probably not average 30 ppg this season because the Cavs are so deep and they are blowing out so many teams, though Zydrunas Ilgauskas' injury could result in James having to temporarily boost his scoring. Wade has performed very well so far but he played in 61 or fewer games in three of his first five seasons, so it remains to be seen just how healthy and productive he will be down the stretch. Meanwhile, Bryant has a history of putting up huge scoring numbers in the second half of the season and, unlike James' Cavs, the Lakers will need that kind of scoring production, particularly with three rotation players currently banged up and out of action (Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton).

Danny Granger is proving that his first appearance on the Leaderboard was no fluke; he has been there throughout the season and is playing like an All-Star, though Indiana's record may prevent him from being selected this year.

The move to small forward continues to pay off for Kevin Durant, who averaged 25.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 2.9 apg in December. His numbers have gotten better across the board because Thunder Coach Scott Brooks had the good sense to put Durant at his natural position, a move that I advocated right from the start of Durant's career. It is ironic that Durant was overhyped as a rookie but that this season there has been in some quarters a backlash against his game when he is in fact now beginning to live up to expectations. Oklahoma City's poor record should not be held against him because that roster is horrible. Durant has improved his shot selection, shooting percentage, rebounding and passing and that kind of individual progress is difficult to make while playing for such a poor team.

Vince Carter is "quietly" having a good season for a surprising Nets team that is currently holding down the seventh seed in the East.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 13.9 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, LAC 13.5 rpg
3) Andris Biedrins, GSW 12.2 rpg
4) Troy Murphy, IND 11.6 rpg
5) David Lee, NYK 11.2 rpg
6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.1 rpg
7) Al Jefferson, MIN 10.5 rpg
8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.1 rpg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 9.8 rpg
10) Yao Ming, HOU 9.6 rpg

14) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.1 rpg
15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 8.9 rpg

19) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.5 rpg

21) Andrew Bynum, LAL 8.3 rpg

31) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.4 rpg

42) LeBron James, CLE 6.6 rpg
43) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.5 rpg

Marcus Camby has gained a lot of ground on Dwight Howard and now poses a serious threat to win the rebounding crown. Camby averaged 17.6 rpg in his last five games, including two games with at least 20 rebounds. Howard has consistently stayed right around 14 rpg for most of the season.

Andrew Bynum is receiving the same playing time this season that he did last year but his production is down across the board: scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, blocked shots; in other words, that Wages of Wins article from last season about Bynum being more valuable to the Lakers than Kobe Bryant looks even more misguided now than it did when it was first posted. Bynum has been a productive role player this year but the Lakers certainly hope that his screen/roll defense will improve and that he will step up in other areas as well. Bynum's lack of consistency is a concern for the Lakers, as is the fact that he does not always play with a great deal of energy.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.5 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.0 apg
3) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.7 apg
4) Steve Nash, PHX 8.5 apg
5) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.3 apg
6) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.2 apg
7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.0 apg
8) Rajon Rondo, BOS 7.5 apg
9) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.0 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DEN/DET 6.9 apg

As usual, the playmaking leaderboard did not change much; in fact, the names are exactly the same and the order only shifted slightly.

Tony Parker, Devin Harris and LeBron James are all within .3 apg of making the top ten.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM

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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

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Paul and West Lead Hornets to 116-105 Win Over Lakers

David West scored a career-high tying 40 points--including 15 in the fourth quarter--and grabbed 11 rebounds as the New Orleans Hornets defeated the L.A. Lakers in L.A., 116-105. West shot 14-23 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line. This victory snapped the Lakers' 15 game home winning streak and is the Hornets' first win this season versus the Lakers after suffering two home losses to the defending Western Conference champions. Chris Paul scored 32 points and was credited with 15 assists; he also had three steals, three rebounds and no turnovers while playing a game-high 44 minutes. Paul shot 11-24 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line. Kobe Bryant almost singlehandedly willed the Lakers to victory, scoring 39 points--including 20 in the third quarter as the Lakers came from behind to take the lead--on 14-22 field goal shooting. Bryant shot 6-7 from three point range and 5-6 from the free throw line. He also had a team-high seven assists. However, the Lakers were outrebounded 44-39 and outshot from the field .506 to .419; the Lakers other than Bryant combined to shoot just 22-64 (.344). Derek Fisher scored 19 points but shot just 6-18 from the field, while big men Pau Gasol (10 points on 3-8 shooting) and Andrew Bynum (seven points on 2-7 shooting) were invisible for most of the game. The Lakers entered the game without the services of injured reserves Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton and their depth was further eroded when Lamar Odom hyperextended his knee after scoring 12 points in just 12:39 of action. He is scheduled to receive an MRI on the knee and will miss the Lakers' game tonight versus Golden State.

This game really highlighted the skill sets of West, Paul and Bryant. One of the reasons that West is still underrated is that many people incorrectly believe that he is very dependent on Paul's passing. Obviously, every Hornet benefits from playing alongside the best point guard in the NBA but West would be a 20 ppg scorer for any team in the NBA and could in fact post an even higher scoring average if he played for a team that provided him more field goal attempts (he averages just 15.6 FGA/game). He can score with his back to the basket, he is a good driver and his jump shot is deadly. He is also an .831 free throw shooter for his career, including .891 this season.

Paul is a wondrous ballhandler and passer. It is very difficult to keep him out of the lane and almost impossible to contain him once he gets there; when Paul gets into the paint, he usually scores, draws a foul or feeds a teammate for a wide open shot. He has improved his field goal percentage each season of his career, has become a reliable three point shooter and is an outstanding free throw shooter. His passes are creative, accurate and easy to handle. Unlike Steve Nash, he is not a defensive liability. In fact, Paul is very disruptive defensively because of his quick hands and toughness. Early in his career, some of the more muscular point guards could overpower him but that is not really the case anymore. He plays with an edge, often looks like he is ticked off about something and is absolutely fearless. Detroit Coach Chuck Daly once said of his Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas that if Thomas were 6-6 he'd be the best player in the NBA. Of course, Thomas was listed at 6-1 and may barely have been 6-0, much like Paul is listed at 6-0 but may be shorter than that. Paul is the best point guard in the game today and one of the top players in the league but, just like Thomas was never quite as dominant as Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, Paul's size prevents him from being quite as dominant as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.

Bryant was the best player in the NBA in 2006 and 2007 but the media members who vote for MVP were reluctant to acknowledge this fact. Last year, Bryant led the Lakers to the best record in the toughest Western Conference regular season race ever and the media finally awarded him his first MVP. This season, LeBron James has certainly been an MVP caliber player (as he was last season, even though he was not quite as good as Bryant) but it just seems like a lot of people are looking for excuses to not vote for Bryant. The reality is that in many ways Bryant is actually performing even better this season than he did last season and his Lakers are currently tied with James' Cavs for the best record in the NBA (27-6). Bryant is shooting a career-high .484 from the field, is shooting just .002 below his career-high free throw percentage and, after a slow start behind the arc, his three point shooting percentage (.366) is his best since 2002-03 (.383). James' field goal percentage will likely always be a bit higher than Bryant's because James is an inside player but James still cannot match Bryant's midrange, free throw or long range accuracy; James' career-high .779 free throw percentage this season would be a career low for Bryant and James' three point shooting percentage has declined for the fourth straight year. James' midrange jumper is still erratic, deadly on occasion but frequently off the mark. Bryant's scoring average is down slightly from last season but he is actually scoring more points per minute. Early in the season, Bryant gave his teammates plenty of opportunities to shoulder more of the scoring load but it has become increasingly clear that the Lakers still need a lot of scoring punch from Bryant to close out games; he leads the league with 30 games of at least 20 points and he has scored at least 25 points in 12 straight games.

Recently, it has become an annual tradition to suggest that Bryant's athleticism is beginning to decline; considering his age and the number of games that he has played that is probably true but this has yet to affect his productivity, nor has it prevented him from still making spectacular plays at both ends of the court. Near the end of this game, Rasual Butler seemed to have an uncontested fast break layup but Bryant ran him down, cleanly pinned his shot to the backboard with two hands, swept down the rebound and then dribbled down court before feeding Fisher for a three pointer. Bryant's block looked just like Michael Jordan's two handed rejection of Ron Mercer in the waning days of Jordan's career; a glimpse of that play can be seen near the end of what I have called the greatest NBA commercial of all-time.

Is Bryant as freakishly athletic, explosive and strong as James? No, but Bryant is still very, very athletic and the combination of that kind of athleticism with a basketball skill set devoid of weaknesses still makes him the game's best player.

While this game showcased the skill sets of three outstanding players, it also provided an opportunity for me to continue my research into how assists are counted by NBA scorekeepers. Last season, I noticed that Chris Paul often receives credit for assists on plays that according to the rule book should not be scored as assists (see the postscript to this post if you are not sure how assists are formally defined). I had charted Paul's assists in four games prior to this game. Charting Assists for Chris Paul and Tony Parker in New Orleans' 90-83 Victory Over San Antonio is my most recent post on this subject and it contains links to each of my previous efforts to monitor Paul's actual assists compared to the number listed in the official box scores. In those four games, there were a total of 46 plays that I charted in which Paul was credited with assists but by the correct interpretation of scorekeeping guidelines he should only have been credited with 34 assists. That is obviously a very small sample size but it is disconcerting that the league leader in this category may be getting credit for 25% more assists than he actually delivered. All four of those games were played in New Orleans, so it is reasonable to wonder if Paul benefits from a generous home town scorekeeper. To be honest, though, I don't really think that this will prove to be the case; my theory is that the general application of the correct standard for assists has been loosened and that this particularly favors players who do virtually all of the ballhandling for their teams, guys like Paul, Steve Nash and Deron Williams.

There is some statistical evidence to support the assertion that assists are awarded more generously now: as I noted in one of my earlier posts, assists were awarded on 52.2% of made field goals in the 1961-62 season but in the 2007-08 season assists were awarded on 58.4% of field goals. Why does this matter? One, it distorts the record book and results in faulty comparisons between today's playmakers and the playmakers of yesteryear. Two, these errors--combined with the subjectivity and/or inaccuracies involved in tracking other statistical categories such as rebounds, steals, blocked shots and turnovers--skew the basic data used by basketball statistical analysts and thus introduces an even higher margin of error into their player and team rankings than would otherwise exist.

I charted assists for both Paul and Bryant in this game; Paul leads the NBA in assists with an 11.6 apg average, while Bryant tops the Lakers with a 4.2 apg average. My methodology was simple and straightforward; every time Paul or Bryant made a pass that should be credited as an assist, I noted the time/situation. After the game was over, I compared my notes to the official play by play sheet. Here are the results:

Chris Paul's 15 Assists

1: Peja Stojakovic three pointer, 9:11 1st q: Correct; this was a straightforward catch and shoot play.
2: Tyson Chandler dunk, 6:20 1st q: Correct; alley-oop play.
3: David West jumper, 5:38 1st q: Incorrect; West caught the ball, dribbled twice and then made a contested jumper. He did the bulk of the work in creating the shot and thus no assist should have been awarded. It is important to remember that the last pass prior to a shot being made is not automatically worthy of being classified as an assist. Essentially, Paul gave the ball to West and West used his one on one skills to create his own shot.
4: David West turnaround fadeaway jumper, 5:12 1st q: Incorrect; just the play by play description of the shot is a good indicator that an assist should not have been awarded. West caught the ball, dribbled twice and then made a tough turnaround, fadeaway jumper. If an assist is going to be awarded on this kind of play then the statistic loses any meaning or relevance because that would mean that an assist could be awarded on virtually every made field goal.
5: Rasual Butler three pointer, 6:15 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
6: David West jump shot, 5:42 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
7: Devin Brown layup, :58.8 2nd q: Incorrect; Chris Paul threw a full court inbounds pass to Devin Brown, who caught the ball, took two dribbles and then scored a layup while being contested by Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. Paul's pass was so gorgeous that I can understand the temptation to want to reward him in some way but the fact that Brown had to defeat two defenders with his individual skill set makes this assist dubious at best. There would be no question that Paul deserved an assist--regardless of the number of dribbles Brown took--if no defenders had obstructed Brown's path but once a scorer has to evade obstacles on his own then an assist really should not be awarded.
8: David West jump shot; 9:29 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot (oddly, the play by play sheet records this shot as a layup but it actually was an elbow jumper; in any case, Paul did deserve an assist in this case).
9: Tyson Chandler layup, 9:08 3rd q: Correct; Paul's pass created the shot so well that there was minimal defensive resistance.
10: Rasual Butler fast break dunk, 8:18 3rd q: Correct; Paul's slick feed created the scoring opportunity.
11: David West jump shot, 7:45 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
12: Peja Stojakovic three pointer, 4:42 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
13: David West dunk, :48 3rd q: Correct; Paul's feed created the shot opportunity.
14: Rasual Butler three pointer, 7:41 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
15: James Posey three pointer, 5:34 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.

Kobe Bryant's Seven Assists

1: Trevor Ariza three pointer, :23 2nd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
2: Derek Fisher three pointer, 10:16 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot.
3: Derek Fisher three pointer, 3:18 3rd q: Correct; catch and shoot. Bryant made his first seven field goal attempts of the third quarter, so the Hornets began running a second defender at him no matter where he was on the court. In this case, Bryant was behind the three point line, but Paul just left Fisher wide open in order to trap Bryant and try to prevent him from shooting.
4: Pau Gasol slam dunk, 1:33 3rd q: Correct; Bryant elevated as if he was going to shoot a three pointer and then fired a pass to Gasol for an easy, uncontested dunk.
5: Trevor Ariza three pointer, 8:31 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
6: Derek Fisher three pointer, 4:36 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.
7: Derek Fisher three pointer, :36 4th q: Correct; catch and shoot.

Paul was credited with 15 assists but he really had 12, while Bryant earned each of the seven assists for which he received credit. That means that I have now charted 61 official Paul assists, only 46 of which (75.4%) fit the rulebook definition. What difference does this make? Paul has averaged 18.5 ppg and 9.7 apg in 253 career games, so he is one of just four players (Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas are the others) to average at least 18 ppg and 9 apg in their careers--but if Paul's assist totals have really been inflated by 25% then he has actually produced 7.3 apg, not 9.7 apg. In all of the games for which I have tracked assists, I have yet to find a single instance in which Paul should have received credit for an assist but did not; the errors always fall on the side of giving too much credit.

One thing that I have found very interesting while charting Paul's assists is that Paul gets credit for assists on certain kinds of plays for which other players who make similar passes do not get credit for assists. For example, at the 11:30 mark of the third quarter, Rasual Butler passed to David West, who took three dribbles before making a jumper; when Paul has made the pass on that kind of play in the games that I have charted he almost always gets an assist but in this instance Butler did not. During the telecast, a graphic showed that Paul gets more assists on passes to West than any other playmaker in the league gets passing to any one player; second on the list is the Rajon Rondo to Kevin Garnett combination and I'm pretty sure that most of those connections are alley-oop dunks that are correctly scored as assists. I think that it would be very interesting to do a video review of each of the Paul-West plays on which assists were tallied to see how many of those assists fit the rulebook definition.

After Bryant's third assist, Lakers color commentator Stu Lantz said, "Kobe is really making it easy for other players now because they (the Hornets) are sending everybody at him." Bryant is regularly double-teamed anyway but after his 20 point third quarter explosion the Hornets changed their defensive strategy and went with a plan that was very reminiscent of what the Celtics did in last year's Finals: send waves of players at Bryant from all angles and dare any other Laker to make an open shot. The fact that this strategy can work against the Lakers even on a night when Bryant had 39 points and seven assists while shooting .636 from the field belies the description of how talented this team is supposed to be; at times--particularly in the fourth quarter--the Lakers looked like a primary school team that has one really, really good player and four other guys who are unwilling or unable to make a play. There were at least a half dozen times that Bryant drew two defenders and kicked the ball to a wide open shooter who missed; no one makes every shot that he takes but an NBA player should make a very high percentage on wide open, uncontested shots. Lantz said point blank that other than Bryant the Lakers do not have anyone who can create a shot for himself or his teammates. Granted, the injured Odom may have been able to help somewhat in that regard but, frankly, I don't trust him in clutch situations and you only have to look at last year's Finals to understand why.

Bryant usually rests at the end of the third quarter and/or the early portion of the fourth quarter but after Bryant's third quarter effort rallied the Lakers from a 77-69 deficit to a 92-85 lead Coach Phil Jackson was not about to take Bryant out of the game. The Hornets closed the margin to 92-89 by the end of the third quarter. Bryant played the first 3:29 of the fourth quarter before heading to the bench with the Lakers leading 99-94; he was only out of the game for 1:21 before Jackson had to put him back in after the Hornets went on a 7-0 run. This is where plus/minus numbers can be deceptive. Bryant had a -8 plus/minus number for the game, which is less than the margin of defeat but still obviously a negative number; what that number does not convey is the nature of momentum in an NBA game. Bryant is not a robot, nor are the other nine players on the court; once momentum shifts, it is not so easy to regain it. In his great book "Those Who Love the Game," Doc Rivers wrote about how frustrated he would get as a player when he played good defense and shut an opponent down only to see that player get hot when someone subbed in for Rivers; Rivers lamented about how difficult it was to cool that player down again. What happened to the Lakers in the fourth quarter versus the Hornets is analogous to the situation that Rivers described; the Hornets got rolling as soon as Bryant left the game and then once Bryant returned he was unable to stem the tide. One other consideration that must be mentioned--and that surely factored into Coach Jackson's thinking--is that if he played Bryant straight through with no rest at all then Bryant may have become fatigued and lost some effectiveness. Still, after the game, NBA TV commentator Gary Payton immediately singled out the brief time that Bryant sat out as the turning point in the contest.

Postscript:

I have quoted this material before, but in case you do not know how the NBA officially defines an assist, this paragraph was posted at NBA.com in 2002:

An assist is a pass that directly leads to a basket. This can be a pass to the low post that leads to a direct score, a long pass for a layup, a fast break pass to a teammate for a layup, and/or a pass that results in an open perimeter shot for a teammate. In basketball, an assist is awarded only if, in the judgement of the statistician, the last player's pass contributed directly to a made basket. An assist can be awarded for a basket scored after the ball has been dribbled if the player's pass led to the field goal being made.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 AM

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Catching Up With...Greg "Special K" Kelser

This article originally was originally published in the May 2007 issue of Basketball Times

The 1979 NCAA Championship Game will forever be remembered as Magic versus Bird but a glance at the boxscore quickly reveals that another player had a very significant impact on the outcome: Greg “Special K” Kelser contributed 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in Michigan State’s 75-64 win over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, who entered the game 33-0. Magic Johnson’s 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists grabbed the headlines but Michigan State probably would not have won without Kelser’s near triple double.

“I fully believe that if I don’t get in foul trouble then we win that game by 25 points,” Kelser says. “We were certainly on our way to doing that, as we did in the other four games that we won. We were winning those games by more than 20 points, on average. When I got in foul trouble that gave them an opportunity to cut a 16 point lead down to six points. When I got my fourth foul we were rolling and we were just about to really bust it open. They had no answers. We were doing pretty much what we wanted to do, we were executing, we were shooting a very high percentage, we were not turning the ball over. That fourth foul was very damaging in that sense but, you know what, when I look back at it maybe it was a good thing. If that had been a 30 point game then it probably wouldn’t still be talked about, they wouldn’t be doing stories and documentaries on it, calling it ‘The game that changed the game.’ That game needed to be competitive and I think that when I picked up that fourth foul and had to go sit out the game then became competitive.”

Kelser, a senior, did not resent being overshadowed by Johnson, a sophomore. “He was a great winner, great enthusiasm for the game, tremendous teammate, I loved him without question,” Kelser explains. “Wherever he went the spotlight went. I understood what my role was and I understood how important I was to the team and I also knew that if I played well that I could be a difference maker in that game. But that game really was not any different than any other game we played during the year; if I played well along with Earvin then we usually won. And that was certainly the case that night. I needed to play well in order for us to win. When I look back on it, if you just briefly mention the game it’s always going to be ‘Earvin Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird’ but if you get into discussion about the game then my name has to come up because I think that I played that significant of a factor in the outcome.”

Michigan State laid the foundation for the 1979 championship run with a trip to South America in the summer of 1978. Johnson, Kelser and the Spartans represented the United States in a tournament that included seasoned teams from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil was led by Oscar Schmidt, the legendary star who was still active 14 years later and gave the Dream Team fits in the Barcelona Olympics. “I had never heard of him but, obviously, after watching him play one time you knew that he was a guy that you certainly had to defensively game plan for,” Kelser says of Schmidt. “He was phenomenal. He had tremendous range on his shots. You felt like every shot that he took was going to go in. That Brazil team was very experienced and they had guys who were older than any of our players. I was the oldest player on our team; I turned 21 during the trip to Brazil. They had plenty of guys who were older than that. It was a great opportunity for us to see exactly how we stacked up against a team that was certainly as good as any college team that we were going to face.” Michigan State won the gold medal game against Brazil in double overtime. Kelser scored 27 points and Johnson had 25. Later, Michigan State defeated the powerful Soviet national team 76-60 in an exhibition game. Kelser had 24 points, 10 rebounds, six steals and three blocked shots, while Johnson had 13 points, 13 assists, seven rebounds and five steals. Those victories against experienced international teams showed that Michigan State would truly be a force to reckon with in the 1978-79 season.

Kelser was just 6-6 ½ and 185 pounds at the start of his collegiate career but he often played center and was able to grab rebounds against opponents who were much taller and heavier. Throughout basketball history, great rebounders have come in all shapes and sizes, from 6-3 Fat Lever to 6-6 Dennis Rodman to 6-11 Bill Laimbeer. “Anticipating, positioning and then of course if you have jumping ability that is even better but I think that a lot of it is just instinct,” Kelser says when asked to describe the traits that great rebounders must have. “I don’t know that it is something you can teach. Some guys just have it and it is such a valuable part of the game. I always enjoyed rebounding. My very first game as a freshman in the Big 10—I think that it was the tenth game of my freshman year but it was the first Big 10 conference game that I had ever played in—I got 27 rebounds. At the time I didn’t think anything of the number because I had done that in high school a few times and I thought that was what I was supposed to do. That is a very tough thing to do, as I found out later because I never did it again—not that number.”

While he had good all around skills, Kelser took special pride in his abilities as a rebounder. “It speaks to one’s commitment to doing whatever is necessary to get your hands on the ball. I think it’s just the desire to want to get to the basketball. I always had that,” Kelser says. “It was one of my strongest assets from the very beginning, even when I first got on the varsity team at Henry Ford High School. They certainly weren’t looking for me to score but they certainly needed me to rebound. That was just something that carried over. Rebounding is something that I’ve always taken a lot of pride in. Guys who do rebound are people who are driven. It doesn’t just happen. You have to be willing to go in there and take some bumps and some bruises and you have to be willing to go in there again and again and again and be consistent with it. I felt so strongly about my rebounding throughout my career that I am almost 50 years old but I could probably go into a game right now and get 10 rebounds. I might not be able to score, I would probably be winded after a few trips up and down the court but I could get you 10 rebounds.”

Kelser averaged 17.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg during his Michigan State career. His scoring went down after Magic Johnson arrived at Lansing--from 21.7 ppg as a sophomore to 17.7 ppg as a junior and 18.8 ppg as a senior—but his field goal percentage soared from .492 to .610 and .545. Kelser made the AP All-American Third Team as a senior.

The Detroit Pistons selected Kelser with the fourth overall pick in the 1979 draft. He showed a lot of promise in his rookie season—averaging 14.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg, with a high game of 34 points, but knee injuries limited him to just 50 games and hampered him throughout his professional career, which lasted just six seasons and 305 games. “I really don’t have too many regrets,” Kelser says. “I truly enjoy that which I am doing, which is broadcasting. I love it. It is what I saw myself doing after my playing career was over. It is what I prepared myself for while I was still playing.”

L.A. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recently suggested that the length of the NBA season causes excessive wear and tear and leads to injuries. However, Kelser, who was a very durable player during his college career, does not believe that the 82 game NBA season had anything to do with shortening his career. “I think that the biggest thing with me is that I played very, very hard and I played through injuries, probably to my detriment, when I probably should have been taking a step or two back and letting things heal. I sought not to do that,” Kelser says. “I don’t think that the length of the NBA season had a whole lot to do with it. I incurred some knee injuries, some knee problems, that sustained over a period of time but even with that I was still able to get four more years in after I had the surgery. Though I was not able to play at the 100% capacity that I had grown accustomed to in college and prior to college, I was still a pretty solid pro and for that I think that I can take a lot of pride. I would have loved to have been able to enjoy a 12-15 year career but that wasn’t meant to be. I think I got more out of it than I was ever owed and probably more out of it than I had anticipated.”

Taking the frustrations of his injuries out of the equation, Kelser preferred NBA-style basketball to the slower paced NCAA game. “It (the NBA game) is much more wide open or it was back then, anyway,” Kelser explains. “I think that the game has slowed down now, unless you are Dallas or Phoenix or a few other teams in the NBA that really get up and down and free flow. The NBA game allows you to be more expressive out there on the basketball court, if you’re truly athletic and innovative. The college game is a bit more contained, it’s a shorter game and it’s a game in which you can be defended in a certain way so that you can be pretty much eliminated from the game or at least have your major strengths taken away. I like the pro game a whole lot better, as far as playing it. I enjoyed playing at the pro level, that style, but please don’t take that to mean that I favor it over the college game. I love them both. I really, really do. I find that the enthusiasm that the college game possesses and how every possession seemingly is a critical one and the rabid nature of the home town fans in the college arenas—you cannot match that. But for the sheer greatness of the players overall from player 1-12 on every roster, the NBA is where it’s at.”

A big change in the basketball landscape since Kelser’s playing days is the parade of players who have gone straight to the NBA out of high school or after just one collegiate season. “I think that the overall talent of the (NCAA) game has declined because you don’t have a fifth year Larry Bird or a fourth year Ralph Sampson or a fourth year Patrick Ewing,” Kelser says. “If those guys were playing now you would have never seen them in college and those are some of the greatest college players ever. So that’s what the game is lacking now. The game is still a great game and the players are still good players but the greatest of the great—LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady—it would have been pretty nice to see them in college competition. That is what you miss now.”

Still, Kelser is not 100% in favor of limiting a player’s opportunity to bypass college and go directly to the NBA. “I’m torn both ways on that,” Kelser says. “I remember when freshmen became eligible to play varsity basketball back in 1973 and I was ecstatic that they did that because I felt that if you are capable of playing as a freshman then you should be allowed to play and not have to sit out or spend a season on the freshman team or the JV team. I guess in that same vein if an 18 year old kid is coming out of high school and he has the ability to play in the NBA, let him play. The problem now is if you make that decision and it is a mistake then it can be a life altering mistake. So with that in mind I am almost of the opinion that it might not be a bad idea to have the kids go to school for a year and maybe even two years. I kind of waver on that. I go back and forth.”

As a college teammate of Magic Johnson’s and a longtime NBA broadcaster, few people are more qualified than Kelser to compare LeBron James to a young Magic. “There are similarities in that they are both 6-8, 6-9 and can handle the ball, can pass it, can score, can do a lot of things and can help their teammates but I don’t think that anybody quite rivals Earvin Magic Johnson when it comes to putting all of those things together on a night in, night out basis and just being an incredible winner. I know that Magic probably has the edge because early in his career and throughout his career he always had great players surrounding him. I think that Jud Heathcote probably put it best: his supporting cast got better at every level; he had a certain supporting cast in high school, it got better at Michigan State and it got better with the Lakers and it even got better when he went to the Olympics. You know, that was very fortunate on his part. A guy like LeBron, his supporting cast isn’t quite like that but he’s a great player and I would think that in time he will win his championships as well. In fact, I don’t doubt that he will win his championships.”

Magic seemed to have an impeccable sense of what his team needed for him to do at a given moment, more so perhaps than just about any other player. Kelser agrees with that sentiment and adds, “Magic had it in high school. See, the thing is, if going straight from high school to the NBA had been in vogue when Earvin came out then he would have done that, too. He would have skipped college and he certainly would have done well because his basketball acumen was extremely high. The thing that LeBron is going to need is time to get the proper supporting cast. You don’t win a championship by yourself. No question about it; you don’t win a championship by yourself at the NBA level. You need one or two more All-Star players with you to do it. LeBron doesn’t have that yet. When he gets that he will start winning championships. He is a great player, fun to watch, unbelievable talent.”

Kelser prepared for life after the NBA by learning about TV broadcasting. He had a friend who was a broadcaster who showed him the ropes. In 1986, Kelser made his first on air appearance, working for Black Entertainment Television. He soon worked steadily for BET and Pro-Am Sports Systems (PASS), a Detroit based regional cable network. Since then he has done Big 10 games for Raycom, worked briefly for the Pistons radio network and did Minnesota Timberwolves telecasts for four years. Kelser began his current job as a Pistons TV analyst in 1993.

Last year, Kelser and Steve Grinczel collaborated to write Gregory Kelser’s Tales From Michigan State Basketball, which not only discusses Kelser’s Michigan State memories but also his experiences as a young man who grew up in San Antonio, Texas, Panama City, Florida and Okinawa, Japan; Kelser’s father was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, so the family moved frequently. “I was approached by Mike Pearson of Sports Publishing, out of Champaign, Illinois,” Kelser says of the genesis of the book project. “Mike is the former Sports Information Director at Michigan State and the University of Illinois. He contacted me and it’s something that I’d always wanted to do and the timing was perfect. He said, ‘Greg, I think it’s time and it’s a story that people will want to hear.’ So far the book has been well received. I love the response that I have been getting from most people who have read it and it’s been a success. That was a poignant period in my life and that time spent at Michigan State still shapes a lot of the things that I do today and it has certainly impacted the opportunities that I get today.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Potential Impact of Big Z's Injury

The Cleveland Cavaliers are off to their best start in franchise history and are right behind the defending champion Boston Celtics in the race for the league's best record this season. However, the Cavs will face some adversity in the next few weeks because starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been sidelined by a fracture in his left ankle. The good news is that the injury is not related to and did not compromise the foot reconstruction surgeries that he had earlier in his career but Ilgauskas may miss up to a month, which probably adds up to 14 games--nine of which will be played on the road, including matchups with the Magic and the Lakers.

In my newest article for CavsNews, I examine how Ilgauskas' injury will affect the Cavaliers:

The Potential Impact of Big Z's Injury

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 PM

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