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Saturday, February 21, 2009

GM Survey Says...Kobe is Still #1

In the annual preseason survey of NBA General Managers, 66.7% of the respondents said that LeBron James would be their first pick to start a franchise today, with Kobe Bryant finishing second (18.5%)--but that voting clearly is more of a reflection of James' age than of a skill set comparison between James and Bryant, because those same respondents selected Bryant over James (63.0% to 25.9%) as the player who forces coaches to make the most adjustments.

Stat gurus, members of the media and fans all say that James is having a season for the ages; there is no doubt that he is playing at an MVP level. So, considering James' outstanding statistics and undeniable impact, do the league's General Managers now believe that 2008 MVP Bryant has passed the torch to James? USATODAY recently polled all 30 NBA General Managers and asked them that exact question. Although 11 of them declined to respond, of the 19 who replied 12 chose Bryant as the NBA's best player and seven selected James, which is not a significantly different voting margin than the one that existed before the season began. While stat gurus are slaves to their numbers and the media and fans alike are wowed by highlights of dunks and blocked shots, the General Managers look at the game more clinically and objectively. Bryant and James are clearly the two best players in the NBA and expert opinion still gives Bryant the edge over his younger rival.

Speaking of polls, Sports Illustrated asked 190 NBA players who they would want to take a last second shot and Bryant won in a landslide, taking 76% of the votes. Chauncey Billups, LeBron James and Paul Pierce received 3% each, while Dwyane Wade got 2%. I have repeatedly said that I think that last second shots are overrated as a statistical category because the sample size is small and most such shots are low percentage attempts anyway; I am much more impressed by a player who can take over a game for an extended period of time in clutch moments, such as scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter or making a series of big plays when the outcome of the game is in doubt. I am much more certain that Bryant is the best player in the NBA in that regard than I am that he is the best last second shot maker but the fact that the overwhelming majority of his peers rank him first in the latter category cannot be lightly dismissed.

The February 16, 2009 issue of the Sporting News contains a brief article in which an anonymous NBA scout ranks the league's top five playmakers. Not surprisingly, Chris Paul tops the list, with Steve Nash and LeBron James placing second and third and Jason Kidd fifth. Kobe Bryant is fourth and the scout declares, "He has always been a good passer. There's no one I would rather have with the clock running out and you need someone to make a play under pressure."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Cavs Stand Pat--and That is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

The Cleveland Cavaliers stood pat as the trading deadline passed yesterday but various reports suggested that they had been actively trying to acquire Shaquille O'Neal and may have also had some interest in obtaining Vince Carter. Pairing LeBron James with a big name star may sound attractive on the surface but--as I explain in my newest article for CavsNews.com--the Cavs have a championship caliber roster right now and there are very real risks involved with tampering with the squad's depth, balance and chemistry:

Sometimes the Best Trades are the Ones You Don’t Make

Also, just because the Cavs were involved in trade discussions does not necessarily mean that the front office is dissatisfied with the current roster. The Cavs are one of a small number of "buyers" in a league that has a lot of "sellers" due to the current economic climate, so it makes sense for the Cavs to explore what options are out there; after all, last season the Lakers obtained All-Star Pau Gasol without giving up any key members of their rotation and it obviously would have benefited the Cavs if they could have found a way to make a similar move.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 PM

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

NBA "Mid-Term" Report Card

The NBA season is actually well past the halfway point but, with teams gearing up for the stretch run after the expiration of the trade deadline, now is the perfect time to file a "mid-term" report card.

In the Western Conference, nine teams are battling for eight playoff spots, while Golden State, Minnesota, Memphis, Oklahoma City, the L.A. Clippers and Sacramento can already book their flights to Secaucus for the Draft Lottery. Here is a look at what we have seen--and what we should expect to see--from the top nine teams in the West:

1) L.A. Lakers (44-10): The Lakers own the best record in the NBA and have kept rolling along even after starting center Andrew Bynum suffered a knee injury that may end his season. Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers in scoring (27.4 ppg) and assists (5.0 apg) while averaging 5.5 rpg and is thus on track to post his seventh "25-5-5" season, which would tie him with Michael Jordan for second on the all-time list behind Oscar Robertson, who had nine "25-5-5" campaigns. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect about the Lakers' success last season and so far this season is how much Pau Gasol has benefited from playing alongside Bryant. In Memphis, Gasol was the primary offensive option and thus had to deal with double teams on a nightly basis but in L.A. he often gets to play one on one because defenses are geared to contain Bryant. Also, the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action not only often frees up Gasol for open shots but it also creates scoring opportunities on the weakside for Lamar Odom diving to the hoop and/or three point shooters like Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic. The Lakers' schedule down the stretch contains more road games than home games but as long as they don't sustain another frontcourt injury they will cruise comfortably to the number one seed in the West. If Bynum makes it back then there might be a slight adjustment period as he regains his sea legs and Odom once again has to accept coming off of the bench; depending on Bynum's condition, perhaps Coach Phil Jackson will bring him off of the bench and keep Odom in the starting lineup.

2) Denver Nuggets (37-17): The Nuggets are the "mystery guest" in the Western Conference playoff race. For the past several years they have been a lower tier playoff team that got bounced out in the first round but this year they are on track to have home court advantage in the first round. Before the season they gave up Marcus Camby for essentially nothing but Nene and Kenyon Martin have been healthy and Chris Andersen has provided a boost off of the bench, so the combined production of those three players has more than offset Camby's absence. Early in the season, the Nuggets traded Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess; they got rid of McDyess, who re-signed with Detroit after the mandatory 30 day waiting period, but Billups has played very well and the other players have responded to his leadership. The Nuggets are actually only slightly ahead of last year's pace but because of various problems afflicting other Western contenders they currently hold the second seed. It will be very interesting to see what kind of playoff team the Nuggets turn out to be in 2009; if they enjoy home court advantage and do not have to face the Lakers or Spurs in the first round then there will be no excuses for not winning at least one playoff series.

3) San Antonio Spurs (35-17): The Spurs have weathered injuries to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and seem to be just pacing themselves until the playoffs; in a recent game against Denver, the Spurs trotted out their "B" team (i.e., no Tim Duncan, Ginobili or Parker) and still almost won the game. While the Nuggets are a "mystery guest"--an unproven entity in terms of postseason play--the Spurs are like a wily, veteran gunslinger who may be up in years but can still take out the young guns. If their Big Three players are healthy during the postseason then the Spurs will pose the most formidable challenge to the Lakers in the West. I expect to see the Lakers battling the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, unless that matchup is not possible in that round due to the playoff seedings.

4) Portland Trailblazers (33-20): Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge form a deadly one-two punch offensively, while Greg Oden has supplied a physical, defensive presence in the paint. The two main questions about this team are health (particularly concerning the injury prone Oden) and playoff inexperience. Despite their obvious talent, it is hard to picture the Blazers winning a playoff series this year against the Lakers or Spurs.

5) New Orleans Hornets (32-20): This has been a disappointing season so far for New Orleans and it seemed like the Hornets threw in the towel for this year's playoff run when they traded starting center Tyson Chandler--but that deal has been rescinded, so it will be interesting to see what their team chemistry is like moving forward. Chandler has been in and out of the lineup due to injuries and he has not been as productive at either end of the court as he was last year. The Hornets do not appear to have the necessary mental toughness, defensive intensity or depth to contend for the Western Conference championship this season.

6) Houston Rockets (33-21): Now that Tracy McGrady is out for the season due to his left knee injury, the Rockets are officially out of contention to win the West. As I noted last year, during McGrady's five years in Houston, the Rockets win roughly two thirds of their games when McGrady plays but their record prorates to less than 25 wins in 82 games without him. This season, the Rockets have gone 13-6 sans McGrady but that mark includes victories over the Clippers, the Warriors (twice), a depleted Utah team (twice), the Knicks, the Kings and the Nets. The Rockets are unlikely to have home court advantage in the first round and are thus very likely to once again lose in the first round--unless McGrady's absence drops them out of the playoff picture completely.

7) Dallas Mavericks (32-21): On paper, the Mavericks look like they should have a better record than they do. Dirk Nowitzki is having another great season, Jason Terry is averaging nearly 20 ppg off of the bench, Josh Howard has been solid and Jason Kidd is running the show at point guard. It is not at all out of the realm of possibility that the Mavericks will make a late run at one of the top four playoff seeds.

8) Utah Jazz (31-23): Two former All-Stars (Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko) plus an All-Star caliber point guard (Deron Williams) have missed substantial time due to injuries and those health problems are the main reason why the Jazz are struggling to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth. If they could get healthy and play Denver in the first round then perhaps the Jazz could advance even without home court advantage but if the Jazz face the Lakers or Spurs in the first round then they will be going home early.

9) Phoenix Suns (30-23): It is interesting to speculate what might have happened in the Valley of the Sun had Tim Duncan not hit that dagger three pointer in game one of last year's playoffs. After acquiring Shaquille O'Neal in the middle of last season, the Suns finally matched up well with the Spurs in the paint but the Suns never recovered from blowing that first playoff game--and that is a reflection of the lack of mental toughness/focus that has plagued this team for the past few years. The teams that have won championships faced adversity and overcame it, while the talented Suns have always had excuses for why they fell just short of reaching the mountain top. Prior to this season, the Suns brought in Coach Terry Porter to instill a defensive mindset but the players tuned him out and now he has been fired. Steve Nash has won two regular season MVPs but he is annually undressed in the playoffs by Tony Parker; Amare Stoudemire is a scoring wunderkind but he is indifferent at best defensively and on the glass. There has always been enough talent around Nash and Stoudemire to win but the real question in Phoenix is whether or not the players--individually and collectively--have a championship mindset and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become champions; there simply is no excuse for the Suns to battle the Spurs to double overtime on the road in game one of last year's playoffs and then lose three of the next four games in the series. It would not surprise me at all to see the Suns rally around interim coach Alvin Gentry and move up in the standings but the Suns will not beat a strong minded team in the playoffs; Gentry is like the substitute teacher who lets the students do whatever they want, so the Suns are going to have a lot of fun running and gunning in the last 30 regular season games but when the time comes in the playoffs that they have to rebound and get key defensive stops they will once again fail--and make excuses.

The Eastern Conference teams can be divided into three categories: championship contenders (Cleveland, Boston), strong playoff teams (Orlando, Atlanta), mediocre teams in the middle and the Washington Wizards, who are in a class of their own because they lag at least eight games behind every other team in the East. Here is how the East shapes up:

1) Boston Celtics (44-11): It may not "look" or "feel" like the Celtics are as dominant as they were last season but they actually are one game ahead of their 2008 pace. One reason that the Celtics seem to be less dominant is that this year there are several other teams (Lakers, Cavs, Magic) that are also enjoying standout seasons, while last year the Celtics just ran away from the rest of the league--but the reality is that the Celtics are performing at least as well as they did in 2008. Yes, they could use another big--so could every other contending team--and they do miss James Posey on some nights but they are still a smart, physical, defensive minded team that will be extremely tough to eliminate in the playoffs. They own a 30-4 record versus the East and it seems like the only team that has a chance to take them out before the Finals is Cleveland.

2) Cleveland Cavaliers (41-11): The Cavs are annually underestimated by most observers, largely because they do not have "name" players other than LeBron James--but what the Cavs do have is a very deep roster and a strong commitment to rebounding and playing tough defense. I predicted that Cleveland would battle Boston for the best record in the East and that is turning out to be true. If the Cavs obtain home court advantage then they will almost certainly dethrone the Celtics but even if they don't I think that this year James will be able to lead Cleveland to at least one playoff win in Boston. The Cavs narrowly missed beating Detroit in 2006 and then in 2007 James authored an epic performance in game five and I expect that pattern to repeat itself in the Cleveland-Boston rivalry in 2008/2009.

3) Orlando Magic (39-14): If not for Jameer Nelson's injury then the Magic would certainly deserve to be in the championship contender conversation with the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs and Spurs but now they are a notch below those teams. Other than Dwight Howard, the Magic do not have much size up front and that means that it is critically important for them to be able to spread the court by making three point shots. Nelson is not only a very good shooter but he is also able to distribute the ball to the other perimeter shooters. The Magic are all but locked into the third seed at this point but they are almost certainly heading toward a second round exit at the hands of Boston or Cleveland.

4) Atlanta Hawks (32-22): I wondered whether the young Hawks would be satisfied with their playoff run last year or if they would come back even hungrier for more this year. The Hawks have been up and down but overall they have performed well and they are solidly holding down the fourth seed. The Hawks are not good enough to be considered a championship contender but because of their athleticism they are that proverbial team that no one wants to face; usually that cliche is bogus but in this case it actually is true.

5) Miami Heat (28-25): The Heat could finish anywhere from fifth to ninth (i.e., out of the playoffs) in the East but I don't understand why anyone is surprised that they are contending for a playoff berth; after the Boston-Cleveland-Orlando triad and the Hawks there are a lot of mediocre Eastern teams that are roughly similar in strength, so the Heat clearly have enough talent to be a playoff team--they have a solid nucleus with Dwyane Wade and former All-Star Shawn Marion (who was just traded to Toronto for Jermaine O'Neal) teaming with number one draft pick Michael Beasley plus Udonis Haslem (a starter for a championship team) and deadeye shooter Daequan Cook, the newly crowned Three Point Shootout champion. Frankly, considering who is on their roster it would be a bit of a disappointment if they don't make the playoffs; what Wade is doing is hardly comparable to, for instance, Kobe Bryant leading the Lakers to the playoffs in a much tougher Western Conference in 2006 and 2007 with Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton regularly being starters. However, even with O'Neal, the Heat are still too small inside to beat any of the top four teams in the East in a playoff series.

6) Detroit Pistons (27-25): The Pistons made it to the Finals twice under Larry Brown and won one championship but Flip Saunders' Detroit teams lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for three straight years. After last year's loss to Boston, Joe Dumars replaced Saunders with Michael Curry. Curry has the right mindset but he is also a rookie coach who has to go through some growing pains. Meanwhile, the Pistons' core group has gotten older, while their main rivals in Boston and Cleveland have gotten markedly stronger in the past two years. In other words, no matter who coached the Pistons this year they were likely to have a worse record than 2008 and not make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals, which is exactly what I predicted in my Eastern Conference Preview--but I did not foresee this team falling off to the point that even making the playoffs is not a certainty. I assumed that Dumars would keep the roster intact for at least one season after bringing in Curry but shortly after the season began Dumars dealt Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Allen Iverson. Even though McDyess eventually re-signed with the Pistons, they were without the services of their leading rebounder for a month and thus they understandably got off to a slow start. When McDyess came back, the Pistons appeared to right the ship--winning eight of their next 11 games--but since January 10 they have gone 5-13. The Pistons have already used 11 starting lineups this season after only using nine all of last year--and one of last year's starting lineups went 46-17, while none of this year's starting lineups has appeared in more than 13 games. Dumars apparently wants Rodney Stuckey to be in the starting lineup come hell or high water, which means that either Iverson or Richard Hamilton has to come off of the bench; Hamilton drew the short straw in that regard and although he has played well lately the Pistons have blown a lot of fourth quarter leads as Stuckey continues to receive a lot of playing time whether or not he performs well. When the Pistons acquired Iverson, Dumars said that they would take advantage of Iverson's quickness and ability to create shots for himself and others but instead Iverson is often playing off of the ball where he is not as effective. Iverson became an MVP and future Hall of Famer playing a certain way, so why trade for him if you are not going to let him do what he does best? Rasheed Wallace seemed to be mailing in his performances in December and January--shooting less than .410 from the field--but he has picked up his game so far in February. The problem is that the Pistons cannot seem to hit on all cylinders at the same time, no pun intended: first McDyess is gone, then McDyess comes back but Sheed's game disappears; as soon as one problem is fixed, another one arises. One thing is certain: the media, the fans and the "stat gurus" will lay almost all of the blame for Detroit's problems on Iverson. The Pistons still have enough talent to win a playoff series against anyone in the East other than Boston or Cleveland but at this rate they may very well not even make it to the postseason.

7) Philadelphia 76ers (27-26): After the Sixers signed Elton Brand they had dreams of being a serious contender but their season went sideways from the start; Brand struggled to fit in and then suffered a season-ending injury. Meanwhile, the Sixers never seemed to figure out if they were a halfcourt team built around Brand or if they were a run and gun team like the one that looked so good near the end of last season. With Brand out and Coach Maurice Cheeks fired, the Sixers have gone back to playing uptempo basketball. They will likely repeat what they did last season: make the playoffs, put a brief scare into a higher seeded team and then get smothered when that team turns up the defensive intensity.

8) Milwaukee Bucks (27-30): The Bucks have stayed in the playoff hunt despite a season-ending injury suffered by former All-Star Micheal Redd. The big key for them is that new Coach Scott Skiles has engineered a vast improvement in their team defense. Obviously, they have no chance to beat any of the teams that they are likely to face in the first round but Skiles deserves consideration for Coach of the Year honors just by virtue of having this team even close to a .500 record.

There are currently six teams that are between 1.5 and 5.5 games behind Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings--call them the giant blob of mediocrity. It is possible that one or more teams from that blob could rise up and supplant Detroit, Philadelphia and/or Milwaukee by the end of the season because at least one and possibly as many as three Eastern Conference playoff teams will have a .500 or worse record. The Chicago Bulls currently are a half game ahead of the rest of the blob and they hope that the acquisition of veteran center Brad Miller will strengthen them in the paint. The New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks are treading water with opposite styles, with New Jersey playing a slower game and the Knicks using Coach Mike D'Antoni's seven seconds or less approach. Coach Larry Brown has helped the Charlotte Bobcats bounce back from a horrible start to becoming a legitimate contender for the last playoff berth. The Indiana Pacers have been giant killers (with victories over Boston, Cleveland and the Lakers) but they must beat the lesser teams more frequently in order to move up in the standings. Mathematically, the Toronto Raptors are still in the hunt but they don't look like a team that can leapfrog several other squads in the next couple months.

As for the Washington Wizards, all that can be said is "abandon hope all ye that enter here."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 PM

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Video of Nate Robinson's 2009 Dunk Contest Dunks

Nate "KryptoNate" Robinson earned his second Slam Dunk Contest title with a narrow victory over the defending champion, Dwight "Superman" Howard. Both contestants brought a lot of fun, energy and athleticism to the event and Howard was a good sport to agree to let Robinson jump over him. Here is a video of Robinson's final round dunks from the 2009 Slam Dunk Contest:



Here is a shorter video that just shows Robinson's final dunk, when he jumped over Howard:

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:48 PM

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Video of Dwight Howard's 2009 Dunk Contest Dunks

Although Dwight Howard came up just short of defending his Slam Dunk Contest crown, he did some things that have never been seen before in the event, including his two hand jam on a 12 foot rim. In case you missed Howard's dunks--or if you just want to see them again--here are videos of his two dunks from the final round of the 2009 Slam Dunk Contest:



The 12 foot rim dunk deserves its own video:



Also, here is a close-up look at the shoes Howard wore during the Slam Dunk Contest:

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:32 PM

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Monday, February 16, 2009

No Shaq-Kobe Drama--Just a Win and Some Laughs

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were the main focus in the days leading up to the All-Star Game--and when the lights came on Sunday night they lived up to all of that advance billing both in terms of entertainment value and production. O'Neal kicked off the festivities with an elaborate dance routine as he was introduced, a performance that he later suggested may have been his way of saying goodbye to the All-Star Game. Bryant saved his best moves for the game, scoring a game-high 27 points on 12-23 field goal shooting to lead the West to a 146-119 win over the East. Bryant also had four rebounds, four assists and four steals in just 29 minutes of action. O'Neal scored 17 points on 8-9 shooting in just under 11 minutes and the former teammates shared MVP honors, just the fourth time that there have been multiple MVPs in an NBA All-Star Game and the first time this has happened since O'Neal and Tim Duncan were the 2000 All-Star Game co-MVPs.

LeBron James led the East with 20 points but shot just 8-19 from the field and he seemed to be trying a little too hard to either put on a show and/or keep up with Bryant, who fired up 10 field goal attempts in the first quarter and scored 11 points as the West bounced back from a 12 point early deficit to lead 34-27 at the end of the first 12 minutes.

The East's fundamental problem in this game was simple and obvious: they were simply too small to consistently battle the West in the paint, where the West enjoyed a staggering 96-58 scoring advantage and a 51-38 lead on the glass. The East tried to counter by using small lineups and firing up three pointers but they shot just 8-34 (.235) from behind the arc. This game is a good example of why serious consideration should have been given to adhering more strictly to the roster guidelines and thus making a legitimate center like Zydrunas Ilgauskas one of the East reserves; that would have enabled the East to avoid having to check O'Neal with Rashard Lewis.

ESPN, TNT and NBA TV will no doubt run highlights of this game until dedicated viewers know every sequence by heart, so it would be redundant for me to describe plays that you have likely already seen, nor does it make sense to spend too much time analyzing strategy and tactics in this particular contest. West Coach Phil Jackson and East Coach Mike Brown did the best that they could do while juggling various--and, at times, conflicting--considerations: the desire to make sure that every All-Star received a legitimate opportunity to participate in the contest, mismatches created by unbalanced rosters and players nursing nagging injuries who therefore could only play limited minutes.

The MVP balloting for this game is very interesting: fan voting counted for 25%, while the media voting counted for the remaining 75%. O'Neal won the media vote 5-4 but Bryant won the fan vote, thus earning two of the three fan "votes" on the weighted scale. Add all of that up and you get a 6-6 tie.

Bryant and O'Neal thoroughly enjoyed each other's company after the game. First they "fought" over who would keep the MVP trophy and then in the postgame press conference they traded one liners; after a reporter asked if this game made them wistful about playing with each other, both answered "No," followed by laughter. Bryant gave O'Neal an "A-plus" for his dance moves but only gave him an "A" for his performance in the game, mock chiding him because of his poor "wing isolation." After O'Neal deadpanned that he was going to do a "Vince Carter wrong-way windmill" before Paul Pierce fouled him, Bryant said with a smile, "And then he woke up."

Not quite a decade ago, Coach Phil Jackson began the process of molding superstars Bryant and O'Neal into dynastic champions, so it is only fitting that Coach Jackson have the last word about their improbable reunion. During the postgame press conference, I asked Coach Jackson to talk about how amazing it is to go from where he, Bryant and O'Neal were just five years ago to a place and time in which the three of them are not only reunited but combine to lead the West to victory. I almost got the sense that Coach Jackson was grateful for this question, because it provided an opportunity for him to deliver a larger message:

I think it is a great life lesson for people. This is something that the people work together, people find a way to get through situations, find harmony in their life, find co-habitation. I hope this speaks volumes not just for our community in basketball but our world community too and I like the idea that we even brought that to the All-Star Game and brought the international flavor in. Basketball is a thing that is a game. It is played as a game but it is serious business to these players and it is wonderful to see them have fun at it in a game like this. Now it is great to get back to the business of finishing this season off.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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NBA Legends Brunch Honors Phoenix' Rich Basketball History

The attendance at the NBA Legends Brunch on the Sunday morning of All-Star Weekend has grown by leaps and bounds since I first covered the event in Denver in 2005. The Legends Brunch provides a great opportunity to reminisce with and about the greatest figures in the sport's history, with a focus on the players and teams from the host city. This year, the Legends Brunch honored R. Steven Colter and Mark West with the Legends Humanitatian Award, Walter Davis with the Legends Career Achievement Award, the 1976 Phoenix Suns with the Legends Commemorative Team Award, Connie Hawkins with the Legends Lifetime Achievement Award, Jerry Colangelo with the Legneds Visionary Award, Wayman Tisdale with the Legends Courage Award and Kevin Johnson with the Legend of the Year award. There was a also a video tribute to deceased former Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and a moment of silence for the 15 National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) members who passed away in 2008. Commissioner David Stern also made a special presentation to Bill Russell to once again congratulate him for the honor of having the Finals MVP Award named after him.

The presentations for Hawkins and Tisdale were very poignant; Hawkins was not able to attend due to his battle with cancer, while Tisdale gave his acceptance speech from his table because he was not easily able to climb the stairs to the stage in the wake of losing one of his legs to cancer. Although Fitzsimmons is no longer with us, you could not help but smile when watching him on video dispensing wisdom and wit in his southern drawl, though the tribute did not include my two favorite Fitzsimmons' lines (as seen in old NBA Entertainment videos): "In my next life I'm going to come back as an official and straighten that mess out"; "He did a dance on you; I should know--I coached him" (referring to a player who Fitzsimmons thought had traveled).

Some tables at the Legends Brunch are reserved for certain high profile players and their families but most of them are available on a first come, first serve basis, which leads to some interesting mingling among legends, ticket buyers and journalists. My tablemates this year were an eclectic bunch that included Micheal Ray Richardson, three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Truck Robinson, Ira Terrell (who played for three NBA teams in a two season career) and Don Cronson, who worked as a sports agent for over 30 years and who represented Jones, Robinson and Terrell during their playing days.

I told Jones that I am a Cleveland Browns fan but that I rooted for his Cowboys in the Super Bowl because they played the Pittsburgh Steelers. I also asked him who his favorite basketball player was as a kid and Jones said Elgin Baylor. The 6-9 Jones said that as a big guy he liked the way that Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell played but that they were not as exciting as the flashy Baylor, who was the first NBA player to regularly incorporate the concept of hang time into his skill set.

I mentioned to Richardson that even though I was a big Sixers fan as a kid I have to give him respect for how well he played when his New Jersey Nets shocked the defending champion Sixers in the first round of the 1983-84 playoffs. I spoke with Terrell a little bit about his brief time being a teammate with Pistol Pete Maravich. I did not have an opportunity to say much to Robinson.

The best story teller of the group turned out to be Cronson, who regaled me with tales about being a frat brother of Dave Bing and Ernie Davis at Syracuse--but the most interesting story concerned the time that he skipped school to go watch high school stars Roger Brown and Connie Hawkins square off in Madison Square Garden, an event that I mentioned in my profile of Brown. Cronson says that he still has the bocscore from the game; Brown dominated individually while Hawkins fouled out but Hawkins' Boys High had a deeper squad than Brown's Wingate High, so Boys High won, 62-59.

After the awards were presented, fans had an opportunity to go to the stage and get autographs from some of the legends. Meanwhile, reporters interviewed various other legends. I spoke with Al Bianchi--Julius Erving's first coach in the ABA--for the first time and soon I will devote an entire post to his comments.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 AM

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Champions Dethroned on All-Star Saturday Night

All-Star Saturday Night saw two reigning champions fail to defend their titles--and two former champions regain their crowns. The Detroit Pistons won the Shooting Stars competition for the second time in three years, Daequan Cook ended Jason Kapono's two year run as the Three Point Shootout king and Nate Robinson won his second Slam Dunk championship, narrowly denying Dwight Howard's repeat bid. Meanwhile, rookie Derrick Rose made a big All-Star Weekend splash by winning the Skills Challenge, punctuating his victory with a dramatic, double pump reverse dunk.

The Pistons faced a strong challenge from the host Phoenix Suns, who posted the best time in the first round and made their first five shots in the finals before struggling to connect from half court. Bill Laimbeer later explained that the key to Detroit's victory was a change in strategy: he had previously been the team's three point shooter but he realized that his vision is not what it used to be, so he ceded that role to Katie Smith, who he called "the greatest three point shooter in the history of women's basketball."

Derrick Rose glided so effortlessly through the Skills Challenge obstacle course that some observers wondered if he was really even trying his hardest--but Rose said afterwards that he had deliberately paced himself to ensure that he did not make any mistakes. Rose is very similar to LeBron James in that both players are pass-first oriented and know how to lead without being overbearing. They also both have great poise and a pleasant demeanor. Rose still has to hone his skill set to truly become an elite point guard but he has certainly started his career in a strong fashion.

Truthfully, this year's Three Point Shootout field will not go down in history as one of the strongest, as demonstrated by the fact that Rashard Lewis missed 10 straight shots at one point--and still finished in second place. Jason Kapono's stroke seemed to be off right from the jump and he never found a real groove during the event. That opened the door for his Heat teammate Cook, who survived a scare in the event's Finals by making his final four shots on the last rack to narrowly avoid elimination. In contrast, Kapono fell apart in the Finals, missing his final four shots. Cook and Rashard Lewis tied with 15 points each, so they battled in a playoff to determine the winner; Cook prevailed easily, clinching the victory while shooting from the second of five racks.

In the much anticipated Slam Dunk contest, Howard dunked on a 12 foot rim, did a wonderfully difficult slam in which he threw an alley oop to himself off of the side of the backboard--and still lost. Howard received perfect 50s on his first two dunks, while Robinson scored 46 and then 41, but in the end Robinson prevailed, capping off his performance by jumping over Howard and throwing it down. As Robinson said, Howard showed that he is a good sport and classy person by not balking at Robinson's suggestion about that dunk. Howard and Robinson are both great showmen who really seem to have a lot of fun during this event, so hopefully Robinson's comment about retiring from the Slam Dunk contest will turn out to be false.

Although no one would suggest that he outperformed Robinson or Howard, Rudy Fernandez did a couple great dunks that the fans in the crowd loved but only received a lukewarm response from the judges, prompting boos throughout the arena. However, fans voted for the Finals winner via text message, so it can truly be said that the people's choice prevailed in the battle between "Superman" and "Krypto-Nate."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:36 AM

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NBA Finals MVP Trophy Named After Bill Russell

Bill Russell's name is synonymous with winning, so it is most fitting that the NBA Finals MVP Award will now be called "The Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award." Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships in his 13 season career but he never won the Finals MVP--but that was not a personal slight: the NBA issued that award for the first time in 1969, Russell's last season, and Jerry West received the honor even though his Lakers lost to Russell's Celtics in seven games; West overcame various injuries to produce 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in game seven, thus becoming the first (and still the only) player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP.

The announcement about adding Russell's name to the award came during NBA Commissioner David Stern's annual All-Star Weekend press conference. Russell's wife Marilyn recently passed away but the NBA let her know about this honor before she died. Russell spoke to the assembled media and said, "This is one of the proudest moments in basketball because I determined early in my career the only important statistic in basketball is the final score." Russell did not play the game in order to win individual awards and he noted that in his second season the league's players voted him regular season MVP but the writers and broadcasters placed him on the All-NBA Second Team.

Russell would certainly have been worthy of winning many, many Finals MVPs had that award existed throughout his career but the important point is that he would never have changed his game in a way that would have negatively affected his team simply to chase after personal accolades.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:45 AM

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Will the Triangle Offense Make an Appearance in the All-Star Game?

All-Star practices typically involve a media availability session followed by the two teams separately running some basic NBA sets, having some shooting contests and calling it a wrap--and today's practices were no exception for the most part, but one interesting wrinkle was that the West team practiced some dead ball situations in which they plan to employ elements of the Triangle Offense. West Coach Phil Jackson--who has used the Triangle as his primary half court offensive set while winning nine championships with the Bulls and Lakers--has coached in three previous All-Star Games (1992, 1992, 2000) but I don't recall his All-Star squads utilizing the Triangle in those games.

Unfortunately, since the media availability session took place before the practices, I did not have the opportunity ask Coach Jackson about this. Instead, I asked him what memory stands out most from his previous trips to the All-Star Game. He thought for a moment and then replied with a whimsical smile and a twinkle in his eye, "MJ pulling the (warmup) pants off of one of the players when he was being introduced is probably the best memory." Then, turning more serious, Jackson continued, "Magic coming back in an All-Star Game in '92 after being retired for a year, kind of a sendoff party for Magic even though he came back in what, '94 or '95? (1996) That was a gracious moment for Magic and the NBA. I was coaching the other team in that game and we lay down in front of him (in the closing moments, when Magic went "one on one" with Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan) and he had a big game."

The Detroit Pistons have not performed well after trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson and Antonio McDyess, their leading rebounder who re-signed with the Pistons a month after the trade. With Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant attracting the biggest media hordes, Iverson--the 2001 MVP who also won All-Star MVPs in 2001 and 2005--only had a few journalists around him. I asked him for his take on why the Pistons have been struggling. "It is just team chemistry. We've just struggled all around and we have to turn it around. That's just the way it is. All we can do is stay positive and keep fighting." I asked Iverson if he thinks that there is enough time left in the season to develop better chemistry and he said, "I definitely believe that. If I didn't, there wouldn't be a need for me to even lace my sneakers up. I might as well hang them up if I didn't feel that way. I see a lot of positive things happening. We just have to get better in every aspect of the game and I think that we will. We just have to keep fighting."

Turning to a more pleasant subject, I asked Iverson his favorite memory of the All-Star Game as a fan and his favorite memory of the All-Star Game as a player. "My favorite as a player," Iverson replied, "is probably just the first time I made it (2000). As a fan, I would say probably the dunk contest when Vince (Carter) won it (also in 2000)."

Iverson has logged 41.6 mpg in his 13 season career, the fourth highest average in NBA history and a remarkable statistic for a player who is generously listed at 6-0, 165. I asked him how he has managed not only to last so long but to do so while playing such an attacking style that involves bouncing into players who are much bigger. He answered, "I just take care of myself and I have had great training staffs in Philadelphia, Denver and in Detroit. I think those guys take care of me and prepare me to go to war night in and night out." I asked Iverson if his training routine has evolved in any way as he has gotten older but he said that he has been doing the same things since his rookie season, relying on "rest and that's it. I don't do a whole lot of weight lifting or anything like that. I just play basketball. I work hard at what I do."

Prior to this season, I said that Danny Granger is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Granger's game has really blossomed even more this season and he received a much deserved selection to the All-Star Game. After talking with Iverson, I saw Granger sitting all alone (except for Pacers' p.r. staffer Krissy Myers) just to the left of the three Boston All-Stars holding court for a large media mob. I spoke with Granger briefly just before the media availability ended and the East practice began. He told me that the biggest piece of advice that he has received from veteran All-Stars is not to shoot a jumper for his first shot, because it probably will be an airball; he also confided that there is some money riding on whether or not his first shot will be an airball, so I joked that he should make sure that his first shot is a steal and a breakaway dunk but that if he misses the dunk he might owe even more money. He laughed and agreed. I asked him his favorite All-Star memory and he said that it was watching Jordan and Bird on TV as a kid. I wondered if he ever imagined at that time that he would eventually be an All-Star and he said that becoming an All-Star first became a realistic goal in his mind within the past couple years. He added that a lot of his improvement this year has been the result of working on his outside shot and his ability to use screens; Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen are two players who he has modeled himself after. Granger added that Bryant has the most complete skill set of any NBA player but said that LeBron James is the most physically dominant.

The East All-Stars practiced first. Rookie All-Star Coach Mike Brown put his charges through the paces of several basic NBA sets: floppy, shake, punch (which is a post up action out of floppy) and rub (which is a middle screen/roll). Most NBA teams run the same basic half court sets but they use slightly different terminology/hand signals, so Coach Brown was just making sure that everyone will be on the same page on Sunday. Also, coaches like to establish some kind of offensive continuity actions for the half court game or otherwise the players may be too tempted to just freelance. There is a delicate balance that must be struck between enabling the All-Stars to showcase their talents yet preventing the game from degenerating into a series of one on one battles.

After the East squad finished honing those basic half court sets, Coach Brown split the players up to have some shooting games. Coach Brown tapped Dwight Howard and LeBron James--the two youngest East All-Stars (and isn't that a scary thought for other teams in the league?)--as captains. As the youngest player, James got the first pick and he chose Ray Allen. Howard took Joe Johnson next. James' squad eventually consisted of Allen, Granger, Iverson, Mo Williams and Kevin Garnett, while Howard had Johnson, Devin Harris, Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade. The shooting games consisted of a best out of five contest. In the first round, the players shot from the baseline behind the college three point line and then in the next round they moved to the wing. Each team won two rounds, so the tiebreaker round utilized top of the key shots and James' team prevailed. Coach Brown involved the crowd by asking them to cheer for whichever team they preferred (support was fairly evenly split).

All-Star practices traditionally conclude with half court shots. Joe Johnson was the only player who made one, though assistant coach Lloyd Pierce sank one, too. This was the second year that the NBA brought in a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records to certify some World Record attempts. This is a little cheesy, though, because the attempts are generally made in categories that did not exist before, so whatever happens will automatically be a record. Devin Harris created a new world record for fastest dribbler from baseline to baseline--3.93 seconds. Although calling this a world record is odd since no one else has been officially timed doing it, that is a fast time. Howard of all people tried to make the longest shot ever attempted while sitting down, but he could not sink his half court attempts so no record was set/created.

The West players came back for the practice later then scheduled and I'm not sure if the fans were thrilled by watching something that more closely resembled an actual practice as opposed to having the players do shooting games but I found it interesting to observe firsthand how Jackson teaches the game. He split the players into four groups of three based on position groupings from bigs (Yao Ming, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol in this case) to forwards/wings to point guards. Then the players ran a series of line drills (baseline to baseline), first just running up and down the court in a straight line without basketballs, then running simple weaves, then dribbling down court and eventually dribbling down court followed by taking jumpers. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were in lines right next to each other and were partnered up every time; they laughed and joked like long lost friends, with Bryant playfully "fouling" O'Neal on the elbow when O'Neal shot a jumper.

After the line drills, Jackson put the five starters on the court and had them run a five man fast break with proper lane assignments (two wings running wide, two "lane runners" and a center trailing the play). After doing that once, the next time down Jackson had the starters transition into a half court set, as if the defensive team had stopped the fast break.

Then the West worked on dead ball sets and this is where Jackson introduced some basic Triangle sets and cuts. While the West will use a standard NBA "fist" (screen/roll) set at times, they also will use a "guard to guard lag," one of the standard initiating passes in the Triangle Offense. After that pass, they can run a basic Triangle set. Jackson said that when Chauncey Billups cuts through on the baseline he can stop on the block and post up if he is being defended by a smaller guard and Jackson reminded the team that Bryant will often avail himself of that option when he is positioned on the baseline, so the players should see if that entry pass to the post is open.

Only after all of that business was taken care of did the West participate in the Guinness project. This time, O'Neal took three warmup free throws (making two) before being blindfolded and attempting to tie the record for most blindfolded free throws made in one minute; I think that choosing O'Neal to do this is Jackson's way of kind of tweaking this whole World Records concept. O'Neal made three free throws while blindfolded (insert your own punchline here about a blind squirrel finding a nut and/or about how that is better than O'Neal's usual percentage). Billups also made a (more serious) attempt at setting the record and, despite scattering some of his misses pretty wildly, he managed to make five and tie the old mark.

The practice session concluded with O'Neal making a one handed shot from half court; a few other players tried to match him but could not do so, with two hands or one.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:43 AM

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