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Saturday, February 07, 2009

After Further Review, NBA Downgrades LeBron's Triple Double

After conducting its standard video review of game footage, the NBA has ruled that LeBron James had nine rebounds, not 10, in his sensational performance at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. The MSG scorekeeper incorrectly awarded a rebound to James that should have been credited to Ben Wallace. This is the second triple double by James that the NBA has rescinded; on April 1, 2006, James was initially credited with 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a 106-99 win over Miami but the NBA subsequently determined that the home scorekeeper had been too generous in awarding one of James' assists.

The NBA's decision about James' New York game was announced not long after Commissioner David Stern chose Ray Allen as the All-Star injury replacement for Jameer Nelson. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert offered some pointed criticism about that move, so some Cavs' fans are already crying conspiracy, suggesting that the NBA struck back at James to punish Gilbert. That seems like a reach to me. The rebound in question was bogus, the footage has been widely seen and discussed and, as noted above, this is not the first time that the NBA has corrected a scorekeeping error; it actually took the NBA longer to correct the 2006 mistake than it did to change this most recent one.

However, since the NBA clearly monitors such things I think that it is long overdue for the league to take a look at assist scorekeeping in general and Chris Paul's numbers in particular; as I have documented several times--most recently here--Paul has been the beneficiary of some very questionable scorekeeping. Since Paul has supposedly broken several regular season and playoff assist records, it is important for the sanctity of the record book that the NBA confirm that Paul has in fact legitimately set those records.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM


Friday, February 06, 2009

Lakers Outlast Celtics in Overtime, Reclaim Best Record in the NBA

Lamar Odom's two free throws with :16 left in overtime proved to be the difference as the L.A. Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics 110-109. Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 26 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had a team-high tying five assists but the Celtics made him work for everything he got, as Ray Allen and Paul Pierce took turns hounding him into 10-29 field goal shooting. Even though Bryant had a rough shooting night, he came through with three three pointers in the fourth quarter, the last of which put the Lakers up 101-100 with 1:30 remaining, their first lead in the second half.

Pau Gasol came up big with 24 points on 10-14 shooting plus a game-high 14 rebounds. Odom was MIA in the first half (two points on 1-3 shooting, three fouls) but finished with 20 points, six rebounds and three assists. Allen--who was just named to the All-Star team by Commissioner David Stern as a replacement for the injured Jameer Nelson--led the Celtics with 22 points, while Pierce added 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists but shot just 5-13 from the field. Kevin Garnett had 16 points and six rebounds before fouling out with 4:22 remaining in regulation.

Sometimes players and teams attempt to downplay the importance of a regular season game but the Lakers are not even trying to pretend that this was just another game. Bryant said, "This was not a statement to anybody else, this was a statement to us. Last year they took it from us, and I'm not going to live with that. I'm not going to sit here and let this team get punked any more."

On Christmas Day, the Lakers beat the Celtics 92-83 to end Boston's 19 game winning streak and this victory stopped Boston's current winning streak at 12. Last year, the Celtics swept the Lakers, achieved the best regular season record in the NBA and used the homecourt advantage to full effect during the playoffs as they captured their NBA record 17th championship; this year, the Lakers have swept the Celtics and are on course to fulfilling Coach Phil Jackson's publicly stated goal of making all of the other contenders have to go through the Staples Center to win the championship.

While the Lakers certainly enjoyed the finish of this game, the start was anything but auspicious: Boston raced out to a 9-2 lead. Odom has a tendency to passively drift around the court, so Jackson attempted to get him engaged early in the game, calling his number on the Lakers' first possession; Odom made a strong drive to the hoop and drew a foul on Rajon Rondo but Odom missed both free throws, essentially transforming that possession into nothing more than a turnover. Defensively, Bryant reprised his role as a roamer, assigned to guard Rondo but giving the non-shooter a lot of space in order to attempt to disrupt the other Celtic players. The problem for the Lakers was that in transition there were cross matches all over the place and the Celtics feasted on wide open shots and easy put backs. Odom threw the ball away on the Lakers' second possession before finally scoring a jump hook over Pierce.

After the Celtics scored three straight baskets in the paint, Bryant answered with back to back field goals: first he posted up Allen, spun away from double teamer Kendrick Perkins and nailed a short jumper and then he drove through the heart of Boston's defense to make a layup. Meanwhile, Odom continued to struggle; on one possession he drove into the paint, passed up a short shot and then got the ball back only to brick a jumper. Mercifully, he committed his second foul at the 6:34 mark and had to go to the bench. By that time the Lakers had cut the lead to 11-10 and soon after that Gasol hit a jumper to put them ahead for the first time. Allen and Derek Fisher traded three pointers before Bryant caught the ball on the post and slipped a nice feed to Gasol for a dunk. The Lakers had steadied themselves and they were up 23-20 by the end of the quarter. Bryant led both teams in scoring (10 points), rebounds (four) and assists (three).

TNT's Craig Sager asked Coach Jackson how the Lakers had withstood the early Boston barrage and Jackson whimsically replied, "Luck," noting that the Lakers had played awful transition defense but that the Celtics missed some open shots. Bryant had already attempted 10 shots and Coach Jackson offered this explanation for Bryant's aggressiveness: "If Lamar's going to be bashful six feet from the basket he (Bryant) is going to sense that and take some shots (but) we've got to get other guys involved." I have never understood why some commentators and fans blame Bryant for allegedly "forcing" shots but they don't direct their ire at guys like Odom who turn down open shots; it is very damaging for a team offensively if a player turns down an open shot, because in the NBA with the 24 second shot clock you are not likely to get another good open opportunity on that possession. Bryant "forcing" a shot that he is capable of making is a better option than an open player refusing to shoot and that is why when Bryant senses a vacuum--as Jackson has put it on other occasions--he tries to fill that vacuum.

One thing that really worked well for the Lakers in the first quarter was a screen/roll action involving Bryant. Josh Powell came in for Odom and did a good job setting screens and then either rolling to the hoop or spotting up for open jumpers that he proved he can make. Bryant scored the final field goal of the quarter on a midrange jumper after getting a defensive rebound, going coast to coast and using a middle screen from Powell to get just enough air space to shoot. After the Celtics missed, the Lakers had an opportunity to score again but this time the Bryant-Powell screen/roll went for naught after Bryant swung the ball to Trevor Ariza, who took one dribble and let the clock expire before shooting. Bryant immediately said to him, "Shoot the ball." That is yet another example of the harm caused by a player not taking an open shot.

Bryant went to the bench to get a quick rest at the start of the second quarter. Gasol and Odom stayed in the game with three bench players (Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar). Gasol assisted on an Ariza layup and then converted a three point play. TNT's Doug Collins reported that Coach Jackson told him that Gasol is capable of scoring versus Boston's bigs but that at times Gasol is "reluctant" to assert himself; Jackson wants Gasol to take the ball to the hoop strongly and not just meekly flip the ball at the hoop.

What I have noticed about Gasol in the year that he has been a Laker is that he has thrived as a teammate of Bryant's; Gasol shot .589 in 27 games as Laker last season after shooting .501 in the first 39 games while playing for Memphis and he is shooting .564 this season. I am not denigrating Gasol's abilities at all when I say that he benefits from playing alongside Bryant. Gasol is an All-Star caliber player and if he were the best player on the Lakers then he would be double-teamed fairly regularly--but because Bryant's presence requires that the defense be "tilted" in his direction, Gasol generally only receives single coverage when Bryant is in the game with him. Gasol plays a finesse oriented game, so he is a lot more comfortable beating one defender by using his finely tuned skills than he is dealing with multiple defenders, particularly if one or both of them bang Gasol around. When Bynum was healthy and playing center, Gasol played power forward and relied on his faceup game but with Bynum out of the lineup Gasol is spending a lot more time in the post; Bynum is more physically imposing than Gasol but Gasol is actually a more polished and skillful low post scorer, so the Lakers' offense really does not suffer much--if at all--with Bynum out, particularly if Odom (who now starts at power forward) is focused on the task at hand (the Lakers do miss Bynum's size and presence defensively and on the glass). The Lakers made it to the Finals with the Gasol-Odom tandem starting at center-power forward and that was without Gasol having the benefit of a full training camp to learn the nuances of the Triangle Offense.

The Lakers led 35-26 when Bryant returned to action and here is where the plus/minus stat can be a little dicey: he had barely taken his warmups off when Vujacic committed back to back turnovers that led to two baskets for Eddie House--a layup and a three pointer. Those were House's first points of the game and, as Collins often says, once a shooter sees the ball go in the basket it makes all the difference in the world; House ended up scoring 16 points in 20 minutes, providing a major spark off of the bench. Not surprisingly, Coach Jackson quickly took Vujacic out of the game but the damage had already been done in terms of switching the momentum.

The Lakers were not able to build their lead back up but with 1:52 remaining in the half they enjoyed a 51-46 advantage. However, they closed out the half very poorly, giving up six straight points, including two layups--and it could have been even worse, because Luke Walton threw away an inbounds pass all the way from one baseline to the other. Since no one touched the ball, the Celtics had the opportunity to inbound the ball at their offensive end of the court with just under two seconds remaining and Allen ended up with a good look at a jumper but he missed the shot. Walton is a good passer but I'm not sure that he is a good inbounder, even though the Lakers often use him in that role; this is hardly the first time that Walton has used bad judgment when inbounding the ball.

The sloppy way that the Lakers closed out the first half seemed to carry over into the start of the second half and the Celtics soon enjoyed a 59-51 lead after making a 7-0 run. Bryant airballed a three pointer and lost the ball while driving to the hoop during that stretch. Fisher committed his third foul but Coach Jackson left him in the game and that decision paid off when Fished nailed a jumper to stop the bleeding. Soon after that, things began to get a bit chippy: Bryant and Rondo were called for a double technical foul after they got into a jawing match, then Rondo was whistled for an away from the play foul on Bryant and soon after that Garnett and Odom started woofing at each other after Garnett committed an offensive foul. What the TNT guys missed is that right after the foul, Odom slapped Garnett on the rear end--and that was why Garnett headed toward Odom to say something. You could even read their lips as Garnett told Odom not to do that and Odom answered that he'd do whatever he wanted to do. For some strange reason, Perkins decided to foul Gasol right in front of a referee, prompting Reggie Miller to quip that Perkins probably did not graduate summa cum laude. It was quite evident that the Celtics had decided to up the ante on physical contact and trash talking but the Lakers neither backed down nor lost their composure.

At halftime, studio guest Karl Malone had suggested that maybe Odom needed someone to slap him to wake him up and after the game Malone said that perhaps all of these little skirmishes did just that. Whatever the reason, Odom became a lot more active at both ends of the court. Nevertheless, Boston led 81-77 going into the fourth quarter after Pierce made a strong drive past Bryant with two seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Bryant sat out the opening minutes of the fourth quarter but the Lakers bench did a credible job of keeping the score close. That said, Bryant returned not a moment too soon, because Boston was up 91-85 with 7:46 left in regulation and the previous two Lakers possessions had ended with Odom and Ariza missing long jumpers. Odom made a layup to trim the margin to 91-87 and after Perkins committed a loose ball foul Odom drove to the hoop, missed a layup, grabbed the rebound, scored and got fouled. His free throw brought the Lakers to within one point but then Rondo hit consecutive shots to give Boston a 95-90 cushion. Now it was Bryant's time to shine; he countered Pierce's excellent defense by draining three three pointers in just under four minutes, enabling the Lakers to take a slim 101-100 lead. After the second of those three pointers, Collins said, "He can miss 10 straight and think he's hot. That's the beauty of great players." During Bryant's three point barrage, Garnett fouled out after pushing Derek Fisher as they pursued a loose ball. The Celtics led 95-93 when Glen Davis came in for Garnett.

After Davis missed a jump shot, the Lakers squandered an opportunity to extend their lead when Gasol drove to the hoop but missed everything on his layup attempt. He grabbed the rebound but the shot clock expired before he could shoot. Collins commented, "That's one of those that Pau Gasol has to go in and try to tear the rim down. You can't flip that shot...That's one of those plays that aggravates Phil Jackson." That was the kind of play that cost the Lakers dearly in the Finals last year. This time, though, the Lakers dodged a bullet because neither team made a field goal in the final 1:30. Pierce split a pair of free throws to force the game into overtime after he and Bryant each made great defensive plays: first Pierce smothered Bryant and did an excellent job of forcing him to shoot a contested jumper and then Bryant blew up Boston's final possession by poking the ball away from Pierce as time ran out, forcing House to launch a desperation shot.

Odom opened the overtime by making a jump hook but then the Lakers gave up three straight layups. Bryant did not make a shot during the extra session but he had an impact with his passing and his defense. Bryant's feed to Gasol for a layup tied the score at 105 and Bryant helped to hold Pierce scoreless in the overtime. Trailing 107-105, the Lakers ran the play that proved to be their bread and butter in the latter stages of last season: a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action with Odom flashing to the high post. Bryant passed to Odom, who then fed Gasol for a dunk. After Pierce turned the ball over, Gasol split a pair of free throws but Boston took the lead on a Davis jump shot--his first and only points of the game. Bryant missed a tough jumper over Pierce but Gasol blocked a shot by Davis, who then fouled Odom. Odom's two free throws closed out the scoring, as Pierce and Allen missed jumpers in the closing seconds.

The Lakers shot well from the field (.477) but shot just 17-29 (.586) from the free throw line and were outrebounded 47-42. They did not play a perfect game by any means but considering who they were playing and the fact that this was their third game in four nights this is an impressive win. Gasol played over 46 minutes after logging 45 minutes the previous night, while Bryant played 45 minutes on the heels of playing 38 minutes just two days after he had scored 61 points in 37 minutes. The Lakers' two All-Stars are carrying a heavy load but they get a couple days to rest now before concluding this road trip in Cleveland, where the Cavs have not lost a game this season. Most likely, either this game or Sunday's game will turn out to be a Finals preview.

Coach Jackson and Bryant have repeatedly stressed that the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Finals last year because the Celtics displayed more toughness. Toughness is not about screaming loudly or flexing your muscles; toughness is about making the plays that have to be made down the stretch in close games and not backing down when the other team challenges you mentally, psychologically and physically. The Lakers improved to 5-0 on their East Coast road trip, winning the second game of a back to back after their victory in Toronto on Wednesday--and they accomplished this without the services of Andrew Bynum, the biggest and most physically imposing member of their frontcourt. That is how you prove your toughness and that is how you build the foundation for a championship run.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM


Thursday, February 05, 2009

NBA TV Panel Weighs in on Kobe Versus LeBron

I just posted my skill set-based take on the differences between Kobe Bryant's 61 point game at MSG and LeBron James' 52-11-10 performance there (2/6/09 edit: the NBA has taken a rebound away from James, so he officially had a 52-11-9 performance); prior to this season I explained why I still give Bryant a slight edge over James for the title of best player in the NBA. So I listened with great interest to NBA TV's GameTime program as Kenny Smith, Eric Snow and Alonzo Mourning compared Bryant to James (for what it's worth, host Marc Fein chose Bryant, citing his defense and his superior outside shot).

Mourning said that he is partial to defense and so he chose Bryant without hesitation: "Defensively he can have a tremendous impact on the game and offensively he can create his shot at any time. He doesn't need anybody else to hit shots to open up the offensive opportunities for him. He can create a shot any time that he wants to and I think that Boston exposed the weakness of LeBron last year: if you shut down one part of his game, keep him out of the paint and force him to shoot jump shots, then it is going to be a lot tougher night for him, as opposed to Kobe--he can put the ball in the basket any time he wants to." Regular 20 Second Timeout readers will immediately recognize that Mourning emphasized precisely the point that I have been making about Bryant and James for quite some time now; "stat gurus" ignore this, some fans don't want to hear it and perhaps such talk does not make my site as "popular" as the ones with flashy pie charts and "cool" graphics but people who understand basketball analytically see the game the way that I have been describing it here.

In fairness to James, he has improved tremendously on defense since he came into the league and I consider him an All-Defensive Team caliber player now, so Mourning's criticisms of James' defense may be a bit harsh. That said--and contrary to what many fans and non-experts seem to believe--the extra .9 bpg that James averages compared to Bryant does not make James a better defensive player than Bryant. It is interesting that some of Bryant's critics contend that Bryant is the "prettier" or "flashier" player but that James is more skilled, because the reality is the opposite: James has more highlight dunks and more weakside blocked shots but he is neither a more versatile scorer nor a better defender than Bryant--and the latter was shown during the last head to head matchup when Bryant was the primary defender on James for almost the entire game, while James only took the primary defensive duties on Bryant late in the contest. James is a very good defender now and he may be a more athletic defender than Bryant at this stage of their careers but Bryant is still a wilier and more complete defender.

Fein then turned to Smith, apparently expecting him to be an advocate for James, and tried to give Smith some ammunition by noting that James had a triple double along with his big scoring night in New York, while Bryant had three assists and no rebounds. Smith retorted with the old line about "lies, damned lies and statistics" and made it clear that those numbers have no bearing on his thought process. Smith declared, "Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the planet, bar none." Smith cited Bryant's "intangibles," including the "fear factor" that Bryant inspires in opponents and Bryant's ability to raise his teammates' play to a championship level. Smith then added something that would be easy to misconstrue if you did not listen carefully: Smith said that for the way that he played as a point guard, it would have been easier for him to play with James because of the way that James runs the floor and because of the way that James drives and kicks to three point shooters. Smith did not say that James is a better teammate than Bryant, merely that James' style would have meshed with Smith's better than Bryant's (and I consider that debatable, because spot up shooter Derek Fisher won three rings playing with Bryant, so Smith could have fit into that role much the same way that he did while playing in Houston). Smith concluded that if he were a general manager trying to build a championship team that he would take Bryant over James without hesitation, a view immediately seconded by Mourning, who noted that Bryant brings an element of championship experience to the table that James does not have. Smith added that Bryant showed the value of that championship experience when he took over in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game in last summer's Olympics.

Snow went last and as someone who not only played with James but is still technically a member of the Cavaliers one would expect him to make the case for James. Instead, Snow showed admirable objectivity by saying, "I think that Kobe Bryant is the better player (and) the way I see it is like what Kenny said: it's the intangibles. I think there was a time in LeBron's career when he just wanted to be the best player on the team. (Only) last season was his focus more, 'I want to be the best player in the league.' I think Kobe has more of the intangibles from day one 'I want to be the best ever' and then it comes out and you see the work that he puts in in doing that. It's been like that from day one, so when I see LeBron James go and spend time with Kobe Bryant (as members of Team USA), then come back and you see a totally different work ethic now you see that this guy (Bryant) is a little ahead of LeBron because he's made LeBron James realize 'I've got to take my game to another level.'" To a man, the coaching staff and players from Team USA all repeatedly said that Bryant set the tone for the team from day one with his workout and practice habits, so Snow's comments just reinforce that point and also carry the added weight of coming from someone who obviously has firsthand knowledge of James' thought process and work habits.

Smith recalled an interview that James did early in his career during which James candidly admitted that he did not have Bryant's "killer instinct." Smith was surprised by that statement because he does not think that Bryant or Michael Jordan would have ever said such a thing about another player (whether or not it was true).

The segment concluded with Mourning saying that James is still maturing while Bryant is already there at the peak of his game and Smith making the analogy that James is like a cake that has been in the oven for a little while: it smells good and you can peek in the oven and see that it is almost finished.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

LeBron Lights Up MSG: 52-11-10

The basketball world buzzed with anticipation about what wonders LeBron James might perform in New York in the wake of Kobe Bryant's record breaking 61 point game and, like the great ones almost always do, James was more than up to the task: he dropped 52 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on the Knicks in a 107-102 Cleveland victory (2/6/09 edit: the NBA has taken a rebound away from James, so he officially had a 52-11-9 performance). James shot 17-33 from the field (including 2-7 behind the arc) and 16-19 from the free throw line while joining Michael Jordan as the only two visiting players to have two 50 point games at Madison Square Garden; James is also the first NBA player to have a triple double while scoring at least 50 points since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1975 (yes, kids, Andrew Bynum's coach was that good).

Bryant and James should be savored as the two best players in the game today but it is inevitable that people will compare James' performance with Bryant's, so I will offer my take on that subject. Of course, I will do this a little differently--actually, a lot differently--than just about anyone else. For instance, in the postgame show on the MSG Network, Al Trautwig talked about how James smiles more than Bryant and seems to be enjoying himself while Bryant is "a lot more intense." Who cares? What does that have to do with anything? Does anyone think that Bryant does not enjoy playing basketball or that James is not intense? What interests me is to compare and contrast the skill sets of the league's two best players.

Team Productivity:

Bryant's Lakers beat the Knicks by nine, while James' Cavs won by five. Bryant played 37 minutes and had a plus/minus number of +19, while James played 44 minutes and had a plus/minus number of +7. Plus/minus numbers can be "noisy," particularly in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that Bryant's plus/minus exceeded his team's victory margin by 10 while James' plus/minus only exceeded his team's victory margin by two.


Bryant shot 19-31 from the field (including 3-6 from three point range) and 20-20 from the free throw line.

James shot 17-33 from the field (including 2-7 from three point range) and 16-19 from the free throw line.

Taking those stats in reverse order, both Bryant and James did a good job of both drawing fouls and making their free throws.

Bryant is a reliable threat from three point range (.500 in the game, .341 during the season), while James is an erratic three point shooter (.286 in the game, .298 during the season).

According to my (unofficial) count, Bryant shot 4-5 in the paint (.800) and 12-20 (.600) in the midrange game; James shot 7-8 (.875) in the paint and 8-18 (.444) in the midrange game. That latter area is what still sets Bryant apart from James: As ESPN's Tim Legler said last night, "Kobe Bryant is the only offensive player in the NBA who does not have a weakness. There is nothing he cannot do on the court offensively." James is a tremendous force in the paint but he shoots a subpar percentage from virtually every other zone, as I detailed in a previous post. Against the Knicks, this difference did not matter too much but it is a major reason why Bryant was able to lead the Lakers past the Spurs in last year's playoffs while James' Cavs were swept by the Spurs in the 2007 Finals: elite defensive teams sag off of James, taking away his driving lanes and passing angles, thus forcing him to shoot jumpers. When James is hitting the midrange shot he is unguardable but he has yet to master that shot on a consistent basis, so it is hard to understand what the Knicks were doing defensively, particularly in the fourth quarter of a winnable game (the Cavs only led 82-78 after three quarters). James shot 3-3 in the paint in the final stanza but 0-4 outside of the paint, yet Knick defenders repeatedly crowded him and all but forced him to drive. On the possessions when Wilson Chandler correctly backed off from James, James offered several half hearted fakes before missing jump shots after Chandler did not come closer; James clearly wanted to drive and was justifiably reluctant to shoot. On subsequent possessions when other Knick defenders bodied up to James he blew by them and scored or drew fouls. The most bizarre defensive possession was when Chandler backed off of James, the shot clock ran down and all of a sudden Nate Robinson--looking like Troy Polamalu on a safety blitz--ran over to trap James; naturally, James simply passed to Robinson's man and Daniel Gibson knocked down an open three pointer. Why would Robinson leave a knock down shooter to double team James behind the three point line? That just makes no sense.


James finished with 10 rebounds, while Bryant did not have any rebounds, so James obviously wins this category even if you take out the inconsequential board that James snared as time ran out (he admitted after the game that a teammate told him he needed one rebound for a triple double but he good naturedly refused to identify who tipped him off). James is normally a small forward and he spent some time versus the Knicks at power forward when the Cavs went small, so he played a lot closer to the basket at both ends of the court than Bryant did.


James had 11 assists and three turnovers, while Bryant had three assists and two turnovers. The low turnover totals for both players are remarkable considering how productive they both were. It is important to understand that the Cavs and Lakers run completely different offenses. Almost every Cleveland possession begins with James handling the ball, while the Lakers run the Triangle Offense and other players besides Bryant can initiate the attack. No Cav other than James had more than three assists, while four Lakers had at least four assists versus the Knicks.

Overall Verdict:

Trying to rank one of these performances over the other is like arguing about whether Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel is a "better" work of art. Bryant showcased his full scoring repertoire and he made the passes in the Triangle Offense that eventually led to scoring opportunities for other players; his zero rebounds are a statistical anomaly (he had nine rebounds versus Toronto tonight). James powered his way to the hoop, made just enough outside shots to keep the defense honest and did a remarkable job of filling up the stat sheet in other categories besides points. When I watched James do his thing in the wake of Bryant's great game I did not think so much about who is better as I reaffirmed my conviction that these two players have separated themselves from everyone else in the NBA.

The Sunday showdown between the Cavs and the Lakers is "must see TV."

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 PM


Breaking Down Kobe's 61 Point Game

Tuesday's edition of ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast program included highlights of every point Kobe Bryant scored in his record setting 61 point outburst in Madison Square Garden plus a breakdown of how he created the 41 points that he scored on 19 made field goal attempts. Here is that chart:

Isolation: 16 points
Off screen: 9 points
Spot up: 6 points
Pick and Roll: 4 points
Transition: 4 points
Cut: 2 points

Of course, Bryant also shot 20-20 from the free throw line, so that breakdown is not really complete because it does not categorize the situations in which he drew those fouls. Tim Legler filled in some of those blanks by describing what he thought while watching Bryant's performance: "Kobe Bryant is the only offensive player in the NBA who does not have a weakness. There is nothing he cannot do on the court offensively...It is time that we start giving this man more credit for what kind of a shooter he is. Typically, when you start talking about the great shooters in the league the first thing you think of are guys who can catch and shoot, have that pure stroke, guys who are open shooters who would knock down the most open looks. When you look at Kobe Bryant, the degree of difficulty on the shots that he makes--particularly his midrange pullup game--he does not really take a lot of uncontested shots. Most of those 18-22 foot shots he has a hand in his face and yet he is so pure, so perfect with his release--we just don't talk about that enough because we think of him as a scorer. This guy is as pure a shooter as there is in the league because he is so precise and he has worked so hard at becoming such a great shooter through tireless work ethic."

Before you even think of asking whether Bryant should be taking contested shots you should understand that if you are a great shooter/scorer and the defense is single covering you, shooting the ball is most likely a higher percentage play than passing to a teammate who is also single covered and much less capable of creating a high percentage shot. Remember, the Knicks did not trap Bryant for the most part, so if he did not take a contested shot then someone else would be taking a contested shot--someone who is much less likely to make that shot.

Jamal Mashburn added, "He reminds me a lot of what Allan Houston used to do with a hand in his face, those 1-2 pullup jump shots; he has the ability to elevate and get those shots off but what impresses me more about Kobe Bryant is his mental approach to the game. He understands that Andrew Bynum is going to be out for some time. He's going to go out there and really establish himself and his team as winners, not play down to the Knicks but elevate above the Knicks. To score 61 points--I've been in the 50 range a couple times but to score 60 is a whole other level. That is a lot more shot attempts, a lot more effort." Mashburn concluded with a very bold statement: "He can reach the 100 plateau."

I think that people who have never played basketball or were never good enough at any level to put up serious point totals simply do not fully comprehend just how difficult it is to score 60 points, let alone to do so in the context of the game (see below for what I mean by "context"). I've played recreational league basketball for decades and the most points I've scored at any level is 39; in general, I have been a good shooter relative to the competition that I have played against but it takes a lot of energy to score that many points even in a rec league, so to drop 60-plus points on elite athletes is amazing. I hit eight three pointers and shot a high percentage in my career-high game, so I think that I would have to play an almost perfect game to even approach 50 points and I don't think that there is any way that I could score 60. Former NBA players like Legler and Mashburn appreciate Bryant's high scoring accomplishments in a way that a lot of journalists and fans may not; Legler and Mashburn understand just how hard it is to score 60 points and what kind of skill set and endurance this requires.

This was not just a case of a guy getting hot or someone taking shots that are outside of his normal repertoire. I mean, Bryant obviously was hot--he shot 19-31 from the field--but he played the game within the context of his skill set and the options that the defense left open to him; as New York Coach Mike D'Antoni candidly admitted, New York elected not to double team Bryant because he is a very good passer and because D'Antoni hoped that Bryant would "shoot himself out." Apparently, D'Antoni did not realize that the Lakers were 64-30--now, 65-30--when Bryant scores at least 40 points, so that "shooting himself out" strategy is not a game plan that will be headed for the Hall of Fame in Springfield a la Bill Belichick's famous Super Bowl game plan (as a defensive coordinator for the Giants) that went straight to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

It's funny--no, actually, it's sad--to see people try to denigrate Bryant's performance by citing the quality of the opponent or Bryant's lack of rebounds or the idea that even though the Lakers won this will set a bad precedent for future games in terms of Bryant shooting too much. The quality of opponent argument is silly--this version of Madison Square Garden has stood for 40 years, the Knicks had lousy teams for many of those seasons and no one else ever scored as many points as Bryant did. Also, in Michael Jordan's "double nickel" game he shot more often than Bryant (37 field goal attempts) and less accurately (.568 compared to .613) and he had four rebounds and two assists compared to Bryant's zero rebounds and three assists. As for the "bad precedent" idea, Bryant's entire body of work proves that the Lakers do very well when he scores 40-plus points and when one also considers that he has been his team's leading playmaker for most of his career it is silly to even suggest that Bryant is going to suddenly just start jacking up shots randomly and not keep his teammates involved.

Whenever anyone questions Bryant's motives or conduct in high scoring games, I always refer back to Larry Bird. Bird used to ask what the scoring record was in various arenas and then deliberately set out to break that mark; that was his way of challenging and motivating himself but imagine what the outcry would be now if Bryant brazenly declared that he was trying to do something like that. Also, just nine days after Kevin McHale set a Boston franchise record by scoring 56 points, Bird topped that total by dropping 60, but no one talks about how Bird got his final few points to reach 60. The Celtics had the game well in hand but began fouling the Hawks to get the ball back so that Bird could launch more shots.

When I interviewed Julius Erving--who had four 50 point regular season games in the ABA but whose NBA regular season career high was 45 points--he told me that he thought it was "crass" to try to pad one's individual statistics (in any category, whether going for a scoring record or a triple double) when the game is well in hand; he said that the bench players work hard in practice and once the outcome is decided they deserve the opportunity to get on the court and perform (he was not speaking about Bird specifically but rather answering a general question about players going out of their way to reach certain statistical milestones, such as Ricky Davis' infamous attempt to concoct a triple double by shooting at the wrong basket and intentionally missing in order to create a 10th "rebound"). When Erving's Sixers had the game won--and they posted the best regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83--Erving went to the bench instead of staying on the court to ring up 50 point games.

Let me be perfectly clear: I don't think that Bryant has padded his numbers in his high scoring games and it is worth noting that in 2005 he sat out the entire fourth quarter of a rout after outscoring Dallas 62-61 in the first three quarters--but anyone who is going to say one bad thing about Bryant's 50 or 60 point games better do a whole dissertation about the way that Bird and many other players took extraordinary measures to amass their best point totals. Either Bryant's critics do not know the history behind several of the 50 and 60 point games by other players or they think that no one else remembers such things but their weak arguments don't pass muster with anyone who knows the history of the game. Even Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100 point performance degenerated a bit at the end, with the Knicks fouling Chamberlain's teammates before Chamberlain could get the ball and Chamberlain's Warriors retaliating by fouling the Knicks in order to get the ball back and feed Chamberlain so that he could reach triple figures (the Warriors won 169-147, so neither team was fouling for any strategic reason in terms of trying to change the outcome of the game).

For the record, the Lakers are 5-0 in Bryant's 60 point games and it cannot be seriously suggested that he padded his totals in any of them: in addition to the aforementioned Dallas game, the Lakers overcame a double digit deficit in his 81 point game versus Toronto, they beat Portland by just five when he scored 65 points, they beat Memphis by two when he scored 60 and he sat out the final moments at Madison Square Garden when he could easily have added more points to his total on Monday.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:04 AM


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Savor This Sunday's Matchup Between LeBron and Kobe

On Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers will host the L.A. Lakers in a nationally televised game. This will be the second and final meeting between these teams this season unless they both make it to the NBA Finals. The great Tom Callahan once described the vibe of Julius Erving's 1987 "Farewell Tour" as "savoring and being savored." Hopefully, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will both be playing for many years to come but--as recent injuries to Andrew Bynum and Jameer Nelson show--you never know what is coming up just around the bend, so "savoring and being savored" is definitely the right attitude to have any time the two best players in the NBA compete against each other. Another Tom Callahan phrase also applies to this showdown: "The Best the Game Offers," his 1982 description of Larry Bird and Julius Erving. As I write in my newest piece for CavsNews.com, that is a perfect description of Bryant and James (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

This Sunday’s showdown between the Cleveland Cavaliers and L.A. Lakers should be savored for many reasons: the teams only meet twice a year, this may be an NBA Finals preview and the superstar matchup between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant features—to borrow the title of one of my favorite basketball articles ever—“The Best the Game Offers”; that description fit Larry Bird and Julius Erving when Tom Callahan penned those words in 1982 and it definitely applies to James and Bryant today. There are even parallels in terms of the age difference, size disparity and stylistic contrasts with those two duos; Bird and James were/are bigger and six years younger than their main rival and were/are considered to be more “pass first” oriented even though Erving and Bryant were/are underrated playmakers.

Bryant just won the Western Conference Player of the Month for January after averaging 27.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 7.1 apg while leading the Lakers to a 12-4 record. He had six 30 point games, two triple doubles and four consecutive games with double digit assists; James claimed Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for January with averages of 27.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 8.2 apg, the first player to reach those levels in each category in the same calendar month since Bird in March 1987. James had six 30 point games and three triple doubles as the Cavs went 10-4. Most readers probably know that I give Bryant a slight edge over James due to the greater completeness of Bryant’s skill set—Bryant is shooting .349 from three point range and .860 on free throws while James is shooting just .295 and .763 respectively from those ranges; Bryant also is a much better midrange jump shooter than James—but they are both putting up mind boggling numbers this season. Even more importantly, James and Bryant embrace the challenge at the defensive end of the court and—no matter what anyone says--they have separated themselves from every other great player in the league.

Bryant and the Lakers got the best of James and the Cavs 105-88 two weeks ago in Los Angeles but—assuming that the Cavs take care of Toronto on Tuesday night—Cleveland will own a 23-0 home record when the Lakers arrive at the Q. The Cavs were without the services of Zydrunas Ilgauskas when the Lakers beat them but this time around the Lakers will be sans Andrew Bynum, who will be out for at least eight weeks after tearing the MCL in his right knee. Those injuries are yet another reminder of why we should all savor Sunday’s game: no one knows how many times James and Bryant will have the opportunity to play against each other when both players are at the height of their powers while leading championship contending squads; just five years after Callahan’s article appeared, Bird had already won his final championship and MVP and Erving had retired.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:06 PM


NBA Leaderboard, Part V

The Boston Celtics looked a bit listless after their Christmas Day loss to the L.A. Lakers but the Celtics have now righted the ship and currently own an 11 game winning streak that has helped them reclaim the best record in the league.

Kobe Bryant's dislocated right ring finger temporarily slowed his mounting challenge to Dwyane Wade's reign as this season's scoring leader, but after his record setting 61 point outburst at Madison Square Garden Bryant leaped to within 1.1 ppg of Wade, which amounts to a difference of roughly 50 points with 35 games to go.

Best Five Records

1) Boston Celtics, 40-9
2) L.A. Lakers, 38-9
3) Cleveland Cavaliers, 37-9
4) Orlando Magic, 36-11
5) San Antonio Spurs, 33-14

The Celtics have not only straightened themselves out but they are the only team in the league's top four that is not missing at least one starter due to injury (although Kevin Garnett is day to day with the flu); the Lakers (Andrew Bynum), Cavs (Delonte West) and Magic (Jameer Nelson) are all adjusting to the absences of key players who will be out for anywhere from a few more games (West) to possibly the entire season (Bynum, Nelson).

Meanwhile, the team that almost everyone considered dead and buried--the San Antonio Spurs--is holding steady with the fifth best record in the NBA and all of their key players healthier than they have been all season long.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.5 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 27.8 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.4 ppg
4) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.8 ppg
5) Danny Granger, IND 25.5 ppg
6) Kevin Durant, OKC 25.0 ppg
7) Al Jefferson, MIN 23.2 ppg
8) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.8 ppg
9) Brandon Roy, POR 22.2 ppg
10) Joe Johnson, ATL 21.5 ppg
11) Chris Paul, NOR 21.5 ppg

16) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.6 ppg
17) Dwight Howard, ORL 20.6 ppg

23) O.J. Mayo, MEM 19.4 ppg
24) Paul Pierce, BOS 19.2 ppg

30) Ray Allen, BOS 18.0 ppg

43) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.3 ppg

Call him "Three Finger Bryant," but neither an avulsion fracture to the pinkie finger on Kobe's shooting hand nor a dislocation of the ring finger on the same hand apparently will affect his ability to take and make a high volume of shots. With Andrew Bynum out of action for at least two months, someone will have to fill a scoring void for the Lakers and no one is more willing and able to do that than Bryant. I suspect that the race for the scoring title will become a lot closer in the next few weeks.

After averaging 25.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 2.9 apg in December, Kevin Durant averaged 27.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 3.7 apg in January. He is performing in almost total obscurity in Oklahoma City but it is obvious that switching him to his natural position of small forward has worked wonders. Durant will almost surely make the All-Star team next season and may become a fixture on the roster for years to come. As I suggested in the last Leaderboard, he was overhyped as a rookie when he had yet to prove anything but now he may very well be underrated.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 13.9 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, LAC 13.1 rpg
3) Andris Biedrins, GSW 11.8 rpg
4) David Lee, NYK 11.7 rpg
5) Troy Murphy, IND 11.4 rpg
6) Al Jefferson, MIN 10.6 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.5 rpg
8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.4 rpg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 9.7 rpg
10) Yao Ming, HOU 9.5 rpg

13) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.1 rpg
14) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.0 rpg

18) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg
19) Andrew Bynum, LAL 8.2 rpg

27) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.5 rpg
28) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 rpg

31) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.5 rpg

46) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.4 rpg

Marcus Camby vaulted up to second place on the last Leaderboard but he has cooled off recently, averaging just 6.8 rpg in his last four games. Most of the rest of this Leaderboard has remained pretty stable, though outside of the top 10 LeBron James moved up several spots as he shouldered more of Cleveland's rebounding duties in the wake of Zydrunas Ilgauskas' injury.

David Lee has been putting up some Dwight Howard-type scoring/rebounding numbers recently, averaging 19.8 ppg and 13.6 rpg in his last five games.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Chris Paul, NOH 10.9 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.1 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 9.6 apg
4) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.6 apg
5) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.3 apg
6) Rajon Rondo, BOS 8.1 apg
7) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.0 apg
8) Baron Davis, LAC 7.9 apg
9) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.1 apg
10) LeBron James, CLE 7.0 apg

The playmaking Leaderboard usually changes the least but there have been a few shifts: Steve Nash moved up to third after averaging 13.0 apg in his last five games and LeBron James entered the top 10 after a remarkable January in which he reached combined scoring-rebounding-assist plateaus that have not been matched in a month since Larry Bird in March 2007 (27.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 8.2 apg).

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:51 PM


Tim Versus Shaq

Don of With Malice... has compiled an interesting roundtable focusing on whether Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal will be remembered as the dominant big man of this era. You can check it out here. This is my response (which can also be found by clicking on the previous link):

After Shaquille O’Neal’s 10th NBA season (2001-02), it did not look like he would have to share top billing with anyone in the post-Michael Jordan era: he had just led the L.A. Lakers to three straight championships, winning three Finals MVPs and one regular season MVP along the way. O’Neal had won two out of three playoff series versus Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and Duncan only had one championship to his name, a title captured in the lockout shortened 1999 campaign.

It seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that the O’Neal-Kobe Bryant duo would win several more championships—but for want of a healthy toe, a dynasty crumbled: O’Neal injured his big toe but declared that since he got hurt “on company time” he was entitled to get surgery and heal “on company time.” So he enjoyed himself during the summer of 2002, had the surgery late, missed 15 games and took his time getting back into shape. As a result, the Lakers did not have homecourt advantage in the playoffs and eventually fell to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. O’Neal’s conduct escalated his conflict with Bryant, who became the team’s leading scorer; O’Neal declared that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won’t guard the house (play defense in the paint), to which Bryant pointedly retorted that O’Neal needed to get in shape so that he could run down the court, because Bryant had no intention of walking the ball up and waiting for him. O’Neal and Bryant worked well enough together to lead the Lakers back to the Finals in 2004 but by then owner Jerry Buss had had enough of O’Neal’s annual in-season vacations combined with O’Neal’s very public demands that Buss grant him a new contract for maximum years and maximum dollars; Buss decided to trade O’Neal and rebuild the Lakers around Bryant.

Duncan’s Spurs filled the void created by the decline and fall of the Lakers; they won the 2003 championship after dethroning the Lakers and then they won titles in 2005 and 2007 as well, meaning that “the Big Fundamental” now owns as many championship rings and Finals MVPs as “the Big Diesel.” In his prime, O’Neal was the more physically imposing and dominant player but Duncan always had a better all-around skill set: Duncan can post up, shoot the face up jumper, rebound, pass and defend. The defensive end of the court really separates Duncan from O’Neal; Duncan has annually been the anchor for great defensive teams, while O’Neal has only sporadically been a force at that end of the court and this is reflected in the fact that Duncan has earned eight All-Defensive First Team selections (plus three Second Team nods) while O’Neal has never made the All-Defensive First Team and only made the All-Defensive Second Team three times.

O’Neal dominance is easier to see, punctuated by thunderous dunks that literally rattled backboards, but Duncan has more consistently maintained a high level of play at both ends of the court. If I had to choose between O’Neal at his best and Duncan at his best for one game or one playoff series, then I would take O’Neal circa 2000. However, if we are talking about evaluating their careers as a whole, I would say that they share the title of most dominant player of the post-Michael Jordan era--but if Duncan plays a key role on one more championship team then he will deserve top billing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:59 PM


Point Guard Injuries Could Open Up All-Star Opportunities, Shift Balance of Power in the League

Monday night brought bad news to two of the NBA's top contenders, as Orlando's All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson dislocated his right shoulder and New Orleans' All-Star point guard Chris Paul strained his groin. Both players will undergo MRIs to determine the full extent of their injuries but early indications are that Nelson will be out for weeks. The Magic currently have the third best record in the East, while the Hornets are fifth in the West. Orlando enjoys a nine game lead over Atlanta, so the Magic can probably withstand the loss of Nelson--but if he is out for an extended period then they will not likely be able to fight for the top seed and they could potentially have trouble in their first round playoff matchup if he is out for the year. The Hornets are in even more dire straits if Paul will be sidelined for a while. Not only are they more dependent on him than the Magic are on Nelson but they are only three games ahead of ninth seeded Utah. Hopefully, both MRIs will show minimal damage and these two diminutive dynamos will return to action soon.

If Nelson and/or Paul are unable to participate in the All-Star Game then Commissioner David Stern will select their replacements (and West Coach Phil Jackson would have to name a new starter at point guard if Paul is out). Mo Williams and Ray Allen are two obvious candidates in the East; Allen made the team last year as an injury replacement and has arguably been the most consistent Celtic this season, while Williams is probably the consensus choice as the most worthy point guard in the East who did not get picked. Deron Williams has come on strong in the past month and would be the most deserving choice in the West if Stern elects to pick a point guard but if he simply decides to take the best "snubbed" player then Al Jefferson may get the nod; it is also certainly possible that Stern would choose Steve Nash, who would then get to play in the All-Star Game on his homecourt.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:46 AM


Honestly Evaluating the Denver-Detroit Deal

Has Allen Iverson ruined the Pistons? Has Chauncey Billups "changed the culture" in Denver? Or do too many people jump to conclusions way too quickly after only considering a small sample size of games and not looking at all of the relevant information? Here are some answers to those questions:

The Denver Nuggets currently have the third best record in the West (31-16), while the Detroit Pistons are tied with the Miami Heat for the fifth/sixth best record in the East (25-21), so the initial returns on the early season trade between the Nuggets and the Pistons seem to suggest that Denver came out ahead -- but are matters really that simple and straightforward?

It is very important to remember that this was not simply an Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups trade; the Pistons also dealt away Antonio McDyess and were without his services for 17 games until NBA rules permitted them to re-sign him. Why is that significant? McDyess was Detroit's leading rebounder last season (8.5 rpg) and he is their leading rebounder again this season (8.1 rpg).

Without him in the lineup, the Pistons dropped from their perch near the top of the league in rebounding differential last season to near the bottom of the league in rebounding differential early in this season. Not surprisingly, the Pistons went just 9-8 without McDyess, a far cry from their 59-23 record last season. In 2007-08, the Pistons had 26 wins before suffering their eighth loss, so spending nearly a fifth of the season without their best rebounder all but ensured that they would not come close to 59 wins this season.

Last season, the Pistons used a total of nine different starting lineups but their normal lineup -- Billups, McDyess, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince -- started 63 games, going 46-17. This season is barely half over and the Pistons have already used nine different starting lineups; even more importantly, none of those lineups has played more than 13 games together.

The Pistons have apparently decided that young Rodney Stuckey must be a starter no matter what and thus have relegated Hamilton -- a three time All-Star who has started the vast majority of games during his career -- to the bench. Kwame Brown has started 18 games for the Pistons this season and, as any Lakers fan can tell you, that is not a good sign.

This is also Michael Curry's first season as head coach. The Pistons were correct to fire Flip Saunders, who inherited a championship level roster but never took the team to the Finals, but Curry is clearly learning on the fly as a rookie head coach and this is reflected in the constantly shifting lineups as well as some questionable strategic decisions. Saunders was not the right man to guide an elite team to the Finals but the jury is still out regarding whether or not Curry is the right man to run a team that is now in transition.

Iverson is attempting fewer than 15 shots per game as a Piston, easily the lowest average of his career. He is averaging just six free throw attempts per game, also a career low. Iverson's best asset is his ability to break down defenders off of the dribble and thus create a shot for himself or a teammate; not only has he won four scoring titles but he also ranked in the top 10 in assists the past four seasons.

Pistons President Joe Dumars initially said that he acquired Iverson to add that kind of shot creating dimension to Detroit's offense but the Pistons are not playing a style or tempo that maximizes Iverson's skill set (as Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy both noted during Sunday's Cleveland-Detroit game). It makes no sense to bring in Iverson and then ask him to play like Billups; that is like saying, "I love you, you're perfect, now change."

Iverson leads Detroit in scoring and steals and he ranks just behind Stuckey in assists. Iverson would most likely be even more productive if he were being used properly but even as things stand now he can hardly be blamed for Detroit's decline in the standings compared to last year.

What about the Nuggets? It is important to understand that the idea that Billups has "transformed the culture" in Denver is, at the very least, unproven. The Nuggets were a good team when Iverson played for them but they were not an elite team -- and it is premature to suggest that the Nuggets have suddenly become an elite team this season.

Do you remember what the Nuggets' record was last season at this time? They were 29-18, just two games worse than they are this season. Then they played seven of their next 12 games on the road, went 6-6 in those dozen games overall and finished with a 50-32 record, just good enough to earn the eighth seed in the playoffs and a first round sweep at the hands of the L.A. Lakers.

The Nuggets are about to host the Spurs before going on an eight-game road trip, followed by a three-game homestand versus the Celtics, Hawks and Lakers. It is entirely possible that after those 12 games they will have the same record than they did after 59 games last season.

Individually, Billups is certainly playing well but he is hardly doing anything that is significantly outside of his career norms: his shooting percentages from the field, three-point range and the free-throw line are all right around his career averages, while his scoring average has increased (from 17.0 ppg last season to 18.9 ppg) largely because he is attempting a couple more shots per game. It is also worth remembering that injuries slowed him down in the playoffs in recent seasons, which is undoubtedly part of the reason that the Pistons were willing to part ways with him; Iverson is a year older than Billups but has averaged more regular season mpg during his career (41.6 to 32.0) without showing any signs of breaking down physically.

Looking at the bigger picture, it is easy to understand Detroit's plan: the huge salaries of Iverson and Wallace come off of the books after this season, so Dumars will have plenty of salary cap room to try to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or other big name free agents in 2010.

Meanwhile, Hamilton, Prince, Stuckey and Jason Maxiell -- each of whom is 30 or younger now -- will be the nucleus of the team in 2009-10 if Iverson and Wallace are not brought back (the 34-year old McDyess, who is still very productive, can be re-signed for next season at a price that will not jeopardize the 2010 plans or perhaps his minutes will be taken over by Maxiell or young Amir Johnson). The Pistons may or may not right the ship this season but it is clear what direction they will be sailing in over the next couple years.

On the other hand, it is not nearly so clear what the Nuggets are doing. It may be exciting for Denver fans to temporarily be near the top of the West but the Nuggets probably will not maintain that status by the end of the season. More than likely, they will once again be a first-round playoff casualty if they don't stay in the top four in the standings, so after all of the hoopla about "changing the culture" the Nuggets will probably not go any further with Billups than they did with Iverson.

Last summer, they cut costs by shipping Marcus Camby to the Clippers while getting essentially nothing in return; Camby currently ranks second in the league in rebounding and blocked shots. Meanwhile, Billups' contract lasts two more seasons (plus a team option for 2011-12), so the Nuggets will not be able to significantly upgrade their roster any time soon. Are the Nuggets slashing costs to save money/rebuild or are they trying to win now? It seems most likely that they will get caught in the middle with a roster that is good enough to fight for a playoff spot but not really good enough to contend for a championship.

It will be very interesting to see what people are saying about this trade and these teams in a couple years -- or even as soon as this summer, if the Nuggets do not make a good playoff run.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM


Monday, February 02, 2009

Kobe Tops King and Jordan by Dropping 61 Points at MSG

Bernard King and Michael Jordan have to move aside in the Madison Square Garden record book--Kobe Bryant just dropped 61 points on the Knicks in a 126-117 Lakers win, breaking King's mark for most points in the "new" MSG (60 on Christmas Day 1984) and surpassing Jordan's standard for most points by an opposing player in that building (the famous "double nickel" game during his first comeback in 1995); the current Madison Square Garden--also known as "Garden IV"--opened in February 1968. Bryant shot 19-31 from the field (including 3-6 from three point range) and made all 20 of his free throws. He only played 37 minutes, scoring 18 points in the first quarter, 16 points in the second quarter, 12 points in the third quarter and 15 points in the fourth quarter.

It should not be forgotten or discounted that Bryant is playing with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand, an injury that would knock a lot of players out of the lineup (LeBron James missed six games last year with a less severe finger injury). Of course, Bryant played the latter part of last season and in the Olympics with an avulsion fracture in the pinkie finger on the same hand, an injury for which he will eventually need surgery, but--as I mentioned in a recent post--it only took Bryant 15 days after that pinkie injury to have a 40 point game. Bryant topped himself this time, exceeding the 40 point mark just 14 days after his most recent finger injury.

Bryant has now scored at least 50 points in 24 regular season games, trailing only Jordan (31) and Wilt Chamberlain (118) on the all-time list. This was the fourth highest scoring output of Bryant's career and his fifth 60 point game, second most all-time (Jordan had four, Baylor tallied three); Chamberlain leads that list with 32 such games. Before Mike Wilbon or anyone else makes noise about how bad it supposedly is for the Lakers when Bryant shoots a lot, it should be noted that the Lakers are 17-7 in Bryant's 50 point games and 65-30 when he scores at least 40 points.

Starting at center for the first time this season in the wake of Andrew Bynum's knee injury, Pau Gasol had 31 points, a game-high 14 rebounds and five assists. Trevor Ariza added 13 points and no other Laker reached double figures. Al Harrington led the Knicks with 24 points.

Monday was a banner day for Bryant; he also received the Western Conference Player of the Month award on Monday after averaging 27.2 ppg (fourth in the NBA) and 7.1 apg (ninth in the NBA) while leading the Lakers to a 12-4 record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:59 PM


Bynum Out at Least Eight Weeks, Possibly Until the Playoffs

Andrew Bynum is not expected to need surgery but the grim news that the L.A. Lakers received is certainly bad enough: their young starting center will be sidelined for eight to 12 weeks due to a torn MCL in his right knee. That timetable means that he will likely miss at least 27 of the Lakers' final 36 games and that he may not return to action until the playoffs begin. At almost exactly this time last season, Bynum suffered a more serious injury to his left knee. That injury ultimately required surgery and forced him to miss the rest of the regular season and all of the playoffs.

The Lakers have been a dominant team at times this season with Bynum at center and All-Star Pau Gasol at power forward but it is important to remember that last season the Lakers clinched the best record in the West and made it all the way to the NBA Finals with Gasol starting at center and Lamar Odom starting at power forward, the lineup that the Lakers will be using now that Bynum is out. Gasol has had the opportunity to go through a complete training camp with the Lakers and is playing the best basketball of his career. Also, Gasol, Odom and several other Lakers got their first taste of what it is like to have an extended playoff run, so this time around they should be even better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, a point that 2008 MVP Kobe Bryant emphasized after hearing the news about Bynum: "I think having Andrew in the lineup makes us a very dominant team. [With] him out of the lineup, we're still a great team. You put him in the mix and it takes us to another level."

Odom has gone through his ups and downs coming off of the bench but now that he will be a starter again his focus and production will likely improve; Coach Phil Jackson correctly understood that a Bynum-Gasol-Odom frontcourt is not feasible because Odom cannot play small forward for 82 games--which is something that I wrote last summer but many so-called "experts" did not understand or predict--but we saw last year that Gasol and Odom have good chemistry, particularly when Bryant and Gasol run screen/roll actions and Odom dives to the hoop from the weak side or cuts to the free throw line to receive a pass after Bryant is trapped.

The Lakers can certainly continue to be successful with their new lineup but the offseason depature of Ronny Turiaf means that if Gasol or Odom gets hurt they will be in more trouble than they would have faced last year in a similar circumstance.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 PM