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Friday, January 16, 2009

Cleveland's Mettle Will be Tested Now

When a player who has just produced 28 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists correctly terms that performance "probably my worst game of the season" you know that player is very good. LeBron James, who also had a season-high eight turnovers and shot just 8-28 from the field--including a career-high 13 straight misses--put up those numbers in Cleveland's 102-93 overtime loss at Chicago on Thursday night. While those are uncharacteristically poor shooting numbers for James, it is important to remember that his excellent field goal percentage this season is largely built on the strength of the phenomenal amount of points in the paint that he scores; he still is an erratic shooter outside of that area and a lot of his misses versus the Bulls were jumpers, including a potential game-winner as time ran out in regulation. Later in the TNT broadcast, Ernie Johnson noted that during his career James has shot just 3-22 from the field in game-winning situations in the last five seconds of regulation or overtime. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of those misses were jump shots. However, James is the least of Cleveland's concerns; he was slowed by the effects of a cold and will surely be playing at an MVP level again very soon.

The Cavs have one of the deepest rosters in the league but they have won just four of their last seven games as attrition is rapidly taking a toll that would be difficult for any team to withstand. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has missed the last six games and will be out of action for several more weeks with a broken foot, starting power forward Ben Wallace has missed the past two games with an intestinal virus and starting shooting guard Delonte West will likely be on the shelf for a few weeks after suffering a nasty fall late in the first quarter versus Chicago. West jumped to block Derrick Rose's shot and landed on the baseline with a sickening thud, banging his head hard enough to open up a gash that required stitches to close and fracturing a bone in his right (non-shooting) wrist. West had already scored 11 points on 5-7 shooting in 11 minutes, taking advantage of the smaller, defensively challenged Ben Gordon on the post.

Obviously, being without three starters really hurt Cleveland down the stretch versus Chicago but the real problem when so many key guys are out is not even so much what the new starters will do but rather what kind of production the team can squeeze out of the players who are added to the rotation. With Anderson Varejao and Lorenzen Wright moved into the starting lineup last night to replace Ilgauskas and Wallace, the Bulls' bench outscored the Cavs' bench 40-17 and outrebounded them 18-13.

Early in the season, Cleveland enjoyed the luxury of having James sit out most of the fourth quarter in many games as the Cavs' reserves held or even expanded leads that had been built by the starters; James is averaging a career-low 36.9 mpg this season. James played more than 44 minutes versus Chicago and he has exceeded 40 minutes in five of the last eight games. Of course, he is a young, well conditioned player who can certainly handle the expanded work load without suffering much--if any--decline in his efficiency but ideally the Cavs would like for him to have as much fuel in the tank as possible for what they certainly expect to be a long, grueling playoff run this summer.

The Cavs face the New Orleans Hornets at home tonight and then head out west for games against the league-leading 31-7 L.A. Lakers, the young and upcoming Portland Trail Blazers, the run and gun Golden State Warriors and the always tough Utah Jazz. The Cavs are just a few percentage points ahead of Boston and Orlando in the East and it will take strong performances from James and company to not drop to third in the conference standings by the end of the upcoming road trip.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 PM

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Don't be Fooled Into Believing that the MVP Race is Over

According to some observers, the race for the 2009 NBA MVP is over--and LeBron James is the landslide winner, outdistancing a field that includes 2008 MVP Kobe Bryant and several other players who are having excellent seasons. James is certainly an MVP level player--and he has been an MVP level player since 2004-05, his second season in the league. At any given time in NBA history, there have rarely been more than four or five players truly playing at an MVP level simultaneously, so just the fact that James reached that point so early in his career and has improved each season since then is remarkable.

James had four main weaknesses as a young player: defense, free throw shooting, midrange shooting and three point shooting. This season, James is playing tremendous defense; he has improved at that end of the court each year and now he is legitimately an All-Defensive Team caliber performer. James is shooting a career-high .788 from the free throw line; although that number would be a career-low for Bryant, at least James has improved his free throw shooting to the extent that it is no longer a weakness.

So, James has clearly eliminated two of his four weaknesses. However, he has not made real progress in the other areas, contrary to popular belief. James is shooting just .299 from three point range, so this is the fourth straight season that his percentage has declined. Despite that, James has averaged at least four three point attempts per game in each of those seasons, including 4.3 three point attempts per game this season. As for James' midrange shot, NBA.com has a page called "Hot Spots" which provides shooting percentages and color coded hot/cold zone indicators for every NBA player from various areas on the court. James is red hot in the paint, shooting .724 (218-301) and he is also hot from just outside the top of the key on the left side of the court (.541, 20-37)--but everywhere else he is either lukewarm (four zones) or ice cold (seven zones); overall, he is shooting .343 (132-385) outside of the paint. In contrast, Bryant has five red hot zones (the paint, the midpost area around the free throw line, two midrange areas on the right wing and left wing three pointers) and only three ice cold zones. Bryant is not quite the finisher in the paint that James is but Bryant is not only hot in that area (.595, 138-232) but he is shooting 210-491 (.428) outside of the paint, which means that defenders have to account for him all over the court, which creates opportunities for the Lakers' bigs to score in the paint and for their perimeter players to get wide open three point shots.

This significant difference between Bryant and James is the reason that Bryant's shooting percentages and turnover rates in playoff matchups last year versus San Antonio and Boston were markedly better than James' numbers in those categories in his playoff matchups versus those teams in the 2007 Finals and 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals respectively. As I mentioned in my Slam Online scouting report of Bryant versus James, "James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals; he averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics. In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals; he averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals."

I have tremendous respect for James as a player; when Skip Bayless was calling him "LeBrick" and others were stupidly questioning why James passed to a wide open Donyell Marshall at the end of a playoff game, I was writing a piece for NBCSports.com titled The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James, declaring, "There have been younger players who led teams to the Finals and there have been players who led their teams to the Finals prior to their fourth season--but no one who is this young and who has only played four seasons has taken a team to the Finals without playing alongside at least one future Hall of Famer. James is used to doing things better--and at a younger age--than anyone else."

I have as much appreciation for what James has already accomplished and how great he is as anyone else does--but it would not be correct to say that he has made up any ground in a crucial area in which Bryant enjoys superiority over him, an area that enables Bryant to be more consistently effective against elite defensive teams (the difference in turnover rates in those San Antonio and Boston games is largely because defenders sag off of James and play the passing lanes, daring him to shoot from midrange/long distance).

Yes, James played at a remarkably high level in Cleveland's recent win versus Boston and in Cleveland's game seven loss to the Celtics last year--but in that series he also set numerous records for low field goal percentages and the Cavs could very well have been swept if not for the tremendous team defense they played in games three and four to extend the series. There seems to be a revisionist tendency now to act as if James played much better versus Boston than Bryant did, when the reality is that James played a brilliant seventh game--which his team still lost--but even including the numbers from his seventh game he still shot worse overall versus Boston and turned the ball over more frequently than Bryant did in the Finals. The ultimate length of each of those playoff series was determined more by the difference between Cleveland and L.A. as rebounding/defensive units than what Bryant or James did in those series.

While James is being rightly lauded for his improved defense and free throw shooting--but wrongly praised for a midrange and three point game that has not improved--Bryant has been portrayed as an older player who has lost some athleticism and is not quite as good as he used to be. Athleticism can be tricky to define--in December 2007 I made the case that Steve Nash may be the best athlete in the NBA--but James is clearly bigger and stronger than Bryant and likely runs faster and jumps higher as well. However, Bryant is still very close to the top of the charts in terms of speed and jumping ability, as he has shown several times this season with various dunks, blocked shots and other plays requiring those traits. Whatever Bryant may have lost in those departments in recent years has not as of yet had an obvious impact on how he plays.

I think that some people were fooled by how Bryant played in the early part of the season, when he was scoring around 25 ppg in fewer than 34 mpg, deliberately taking fewer shots to give other players the opportunity to step up. Bryant was also struggling a bit from three point range at that time--but after the Lakers blew some leads down the stretch with Bryant resting on the bench, Coach Phil Jackson has increased Bryant's minutes (he averaged 37.2 mpg in December and 39.0 mpg in the first seven games in January) and Bryant has put up some eyepopping numbers.

In the previous post, I mentioned that in the first seven games in January, Bryant averaged 30.6 ppg, 6.1 apg and 4.9 rpg while shooting .500 from the field, .483 from three point range and .847 from the free throw line. Going back a bit further, since December 1, Bryant has averaged 29.0 ppg, 4.8 apg and 5.5 rpg while shooting .484 from the field, .402 from three point range and .871 from the free throw line. Now that Bryant has regained his three point shooting touch while continuing to remain deadly in the paint and from midrange, he is essentially unguardable--he will make some shots and miss some shots but the defense cannot really dictate to him because there are no weak areas of the court to steer him toward. Bryant scored 13 fourth quarter points for the Lakers in their 105-100 win at Houston on Tuesday, including 11 of their 15 points in a 5:50 run when they went from down 89-87 to up 102-100 after a Bryant three pointer that proved to be the game-winning shot. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum finished the game with 11 points each and combined to grab eight rebounds, one more than Bryant's team-high tying total (Bryant led the Lakers with 33 points and also had a team-high tying four assists). Although the Lakers have a lot of depth, some of that depth has been eliminated due to injuries and even before those injuries struck it has often been up to Bryant to close out games, including games in which the Lakers once enjoyed comfortable leads before he went to the bench for a brief rest; Jackson eventually had to switch his rotation up and leave Bryant in games at the start of the fourth quarter to stabilize things, a marked contrast to the situation with Cleveland, where James has frequently sat out substantial portions of fourth quarters as the Cavs rode their suffocating defense and rebounding dominance to victories.

I think that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are head and shoulders above everyone else in the NBA right now (I need to see Dwyane Wade healthy and playing at this level for a full season before I'll put his name back in the discussion). James is obviously an MVP level player and has been one for quite some time--but there is an old boxing saying that to beat the champ you have to knock him out. Last year, Bryant finally earned overdue recognition as the MVP and the league's best all-around player and he is playing as well or better this season for the team that has the best record in the NBA. James is right behind Bryant, just like his Cavs are right behind the Lakers, but it is premature to say that James has surpassed Bryant and it is certainly premature to say--as some have suggested--that the MVP discussion is closed. More than half the season remains to be played, so both players will have plenty of opportunities to make their case for winning the 2009 MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM

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Shane Battier Talks About Kobe, LeBron--and Chess

Shane Battier was a star at Duke, winning the 2001 NCAA Player of the Year, but in the NBA he has carved out a solid eight year career as one of the league's ultimate "glue" players; like Bruce Bowen, he is an excellent defender whose main offensive role is to provide spacing by draining three pointers. Battier made the 2008 All-Defensive Second Team and he ranks 50th in NBA history in three point field goal percentage (.389). He often shoulders the daunting burden of guarding the top perimeter players in the league and probably makes Kobe Bryant work as hard for his points as any defender in the NBA; last night, Bryant led the Lakers with 33 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a 105-100 victory at Houston but--thanks in no small part to Battier's defense--Bryant had to launch a season-high 32 attempts to score those 33 points. While Bryant made what turned out to be the game-winning shot, that attempt was a deep three pointer with Battier's hand right in his face. After the game, Battier said, "I'll take that shot every day of the week. That's probably the least efficient shot you can give him on any given Kobe possession, a 35-footer with a hand in his face. That speaks to his talent." While some people have prematurely declared the MVP race to be over, no one seems to have noticed that in seven January games the Lakers have gone 6-1 and claimed the best record in the NBA with Bryant averaging 30.6 ppg, 6.1 apg and 4.9 rpg while shooting .500 from the field, .483 from three point range and .847 from the free throw line; in other words, he is playing better than he did when he won the MVP last year.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Battier about how he approaches guarding Bryant and LeBron James and about Battier's interest in chess:

A little over a year ago, I wrote an article about chess and basketball for Chess Life Online; the piece focused on Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien, his interest in chess and his observations about how chess and basketball are similar. I recently discovered that Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier, the 2001 NCAA Player of the Year and one of the top defensive players in the NBA, plays chess.

I tried to speak with him before Cleveland's 99-90 win over his Houston Rockets but there was not time because he had to do some special stretching and treatment after he was done with his pregame shootaround. He promised to talk with me after the game and the affable, articulate Battier was true to his word.

When I approached him in the locker room, his feet were soaking in ice water and ice bags were wrapped around both of his knees. After the interview, I gestured to all of the ice and said, "This is the part that the fans don't see--everything that goes into getting you ready to play and helping you recover afterwards."

He smiled ruefully and said that this was part of the aging process for him (he recently turned 30). I asked how he feels and he explained that he feels "good" but that it is all relative; "good" after playing four games in five nights is not the same as "good" before playing those games. Battier told me that it will take him two days after playing four games in five nights for his body to feel the same way that it did before those games.

Before talking about the recuperative process, Battier told me about his interest in chess and shared some insights about his perspective on guarding LeBron James and Kobe Bryant:

Friedman: "I understand that you are a chess player, that you are really into chess. How did you get started and who taught you to play?"

Battier: "I dabble. I wouldn't say that I'm Garry Kasparov by any means. My brother and I were really competitive growing up and chess was one of the things that we always battled with, starting in the first or second grade. I don't think that anyone taught me; it was one of those things that we figured out and played each other."

Friedman: "I heard that you bring a chess set with you on road trips. Who do you play against, either on your team or around the league?"

Battier: "Mike Dunleavy and I were roommates at Duke and we had a couple chess battles."

Friedman: "Did you know that Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien plays chess?"

Battier: "No, I didn't know that."

Friedman: "His assistant Lester Conner also plays. I did an article about O'Brien for the U.S. Chess Federation. He's really into chess. I don't know if he's the NBA champion in terms of chess but I've been told me he's pretty good."

Battier: "Nice. I didn't know that but he seems like a pretty smart guy."

Friedman: "You mentioned Kasparov. Do you follow at all what is happening in the chess world?"

Battier: "Every now and then you hear about a rising star. The level that the pros are at is beyond laymen like myself. It's pretty amazing to see the way their minds work. It really is an art form once you break it down. It's the best game."

Friedman: "Do you see any similarities between some of the strategies that are used in chess and strategies that are used in basketball?"

Battier: "You have to think ahead. Obviously you can't think a couple possessions ahead but when the ball is on one side of the court as a defender you are thinking about where is the ball going to go to next and where is my man going to go to next. So you are always trying to anticipate what your opponent is going to do, just like in chess."

Friedman: "Coach O'Brien mentioned that in basketball and in chess it is paramount to control the middle. In chess, you try to control the center of the board and work off of that and in basketball as well you want to control the paint offensively and defensively."

Battier: "That's a good analogy. That's true."

Friedman: "When you guard someone like LeBron, what is your mindset coming into the game? What are you trying to force him to do and what options are you trying to take away?"

Battier: "You know that he is going to score his points, so you don't go into the game thinking that you are going to shut him out. He's too good of a player. You try to make him work. You try to make him hit tough shots with a hand in his face. If he takes long two point jumpers while you stood in front of him and you keep him off of the foul line then you live with the result and you move on."

Friedman: "What are the similarities and the differences between how you would guard LeBron and how you would guard Kobe, based on their body types and their skill sets?"

Battier: "There are some similarities. Obviously, you want to keep both of them off of the foul line. You want to take away their easy buckets in transition. You don't want to give them anything that gives them confidence; it's a lot tougher to do than to talk about (laughs). They are such great, phenomenal players that you just try to work, you try to stay in front of them and you try to make them shoot tough jumpers."

Friedman: "I know that LeBron has improved his jump shot but at this stage is there a difference in how you would guard them on the perimeter? Kobe is considered to be a better perimeter shooter, so would you guard him differently if there is a screen/roll?"

Battier: "In transition, you really have to find Kobe (on the perimeter). LeBron has improved his three point shooting but with Kobe you really have to start looking for him once he crosses halfcourt. But with LeBron, you better know where he is when he crosses the other free throw line because if he has a step and he is going full bore he is tough to stop in transition."

Friedman: "So with LeBron you are more worried that he is going to get that head of steam and get in the paint, like the play where T-Mac fouled him and he scored anyway."

Battier: "Yeah, you can't do much about that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM

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Monday, January 12, 2009

What is Wrong with the Celtics?

The Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA Championship on the strength of having three future Hall of Famers leading a team that was committed to playing together--as signified by their "Ubuntu" motto--and to playing hard nosed defense. The Celtics raced out to a record-setting 27-2 start this season but heading in to tonight's home game versus Toronto they are just 3-7 in their last 10 games. The downward slide began with a 92-83 Christmas Day loss in the Finals rematch versus the L.A. Lakers. It would be natural to assume that when a defensive-minded team struggles this is caused primarily by slippage at the defensive end of the court but neither statistics nor observation support that supposition in this case. The Celtics rank first in rebounding differential (5.2 rpg) , second in defensive field goal percentage (.422), second in field goal percentage differential (.055) and third in point differential (8.4 ppg); last season, they ranked fourth, first, first and first respectively in those categories and though some of their rankings have dipped slightly the only significant decline numerically is in point differential (10.2 in 2008, 8.4 this season). Boston's defense may not be quite as dominant as it was last season but it has not declined enough to explain the team's current malaise.

Boston's problems are clearly at the offensive end of the court. Although the Celtics are averaging 99.9 ppg--nearly matching last year's 100.5 ppg average--they have scored just 82.4 ppg in the past 10 games. The Celtics have given up 91.7 ppg during that same stretch, virtually identical with the 91.5 ppg that they have allowed overall this season; they rank second in the NBA in points allowed, just like they did in 2008.

Boston's reserves have become the scapegoats for the sputtering offense. There is a lot of talk that the Celtics lack depth and that they need to acquire one or more bench players in order to be ready for this year's playoffs. Certainly, every team in the NBA would like to add more depth but the big story in Boston is not so much the bench but rather that two members of the team's "Big Three"--Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett--have been markedly less effective offensively this year while playing virtually the same number of minutes; if the bench were the big problem then one would assume that the starters would be forced to play more minutes and that perhaps fatigue would be wearing them down but this has not been the case so far.

Here are the numbers that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen posted last season compared with their numbers in the same categories this season:

Ray Allen:

2008: 73 games, 35.9 mpg, 17.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, .445 FG%, .398 3PT FG%, .907 FT%
2009: 39 games, 36.9 mpg, 18.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, .484 FG%, .391 3PT FG%, .930 FT%

Paul Pierce:

2008: 80 games, 35.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.5 apg, .464 FG%, .392 3PT FG%, .843 FT%
2009: 39 games, 36.7 mpg, 19.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, .438 FG%, .401 3PT FG%, .850 FT%

Kevin Garnett:

2008: 71 games, 32.8 mpg, 18.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, .539 FG%, .000 3PT FG%, .801 FT%
2009: 38 games, 32.9 mpg, 16.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, .514 FG%, .143 3PT FG%, .828 FT%

Allen's surgically repaired ankles hobbled him at times last season but he now appears to be fully healthy and he has increased his production from last year--but Pierce and Garnett are both scoring fewer points and shooting less accurately from the field than they did last season. Collectively, the "Big Three" are averaging 2.8 fewer points per game than last season, so considering that the Celtics' team scoring average has only declined by .6 ppg the other Celtics are actually scoring more points than last year; the team's field goal percentage is slightly better this year (.477 compared to .475 in 2008), so the other players have actually offset Pierce and Garnett's declines in that regard. The problem is that a team needs its superstars to create shots for themselves and for their teammates--particularly down the stretch--and the "Big Three" have not been doing either of those things as effectively this season as they did last season.

It is comical to hear Pierce's name even mentioned in MVP discussions this season; not only is he playing worse than he did last year--when he was not an MVP candidate--but on a night in, night out basis he does not have nearly the impact or production that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James do for teams that have better records (and fewer future Hall of Famers--as in none, other than Bryant and James themselves) than the Celtics. Garnett continues to make a very strong contribution defensively but the player who finished third in last year's MVP voting is now the third offensive option on his own team.

Another problem for the Celtics is that after getting off to a quick start that spurred talk of making the All-Star team, Rajon Rondo has not adjusted well to being left wide open as his defender provides help against Allen, Pierce and others. The Lakers provided a blueprint for guarding Boston--give Rondo open jumpers while protecting the paint--and other teams are using that blueprint.

Last season, in addition to the "Big Three" plus Rondo the Celtics had four players who averaged between 6.9 ppg and 7.9 ppg; this does not include late season acquisition Sam Cassell (7.6 ppg), who only played in 17 regular season games but made key contributions during some playoff games and will presumably be available again for playoff duty in 2009 even though he has yet to suit up this season. This season, the Celtics have four players other than the "Big Three" plus Rondo who are averaging between 6.7 ppg and 8.8 ppg. The reality is that in the playoffs coaches shrink their rotations; only six Celtics averaged at least 6.6 ppg in the 2008 playoffs. Although the Celtics do miss James Posey and P.J. Brown to some degree, they have enough depth to win another championship--but Pierce and Garnett have to get back to playing the way that they did last year. The slight increase in Ray Allen's offensive production is not enough to offset the declines by Pierce and Garnett.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:53 PM

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