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Friday, April 17, 2009

An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race

There are three main MVP candidates this season: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Dwight Howard and Chris Paul have performed at a very high level and will likely round out the top five in the MVP voting but neither player deserves to be ranked ahead of Bryant, James and Wade. Before I say who I think should win this year's award, I will make the case for and against each of the top three candidates.

Kobe Bryant:


No one even talks about this now but Bryant is playing with an avulsion fracture in the pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand that he suffered in February 2008 plus a dislocated ring finger on his right hand; if Brett Favre were playing with those injuries then ESPN would probably build a statue of him and have their anchors bow down to it three times a day but in Bryant's case it apparently is simply expected that he will not miss a game for anything short of a completely debilitating injury (James missed five games in the 2007-08 season with a much less serious finger injury). By playing hurt and making no excuses, Bryant sets the tone for how he expects his team to take care of business on the court in games and off the court in practices.

Another thing that is not mentioned nearly enough is that the Lakers hardly missed a beat after starting center Andrew Bynum went down with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee; the Lakers started the season 37-9 (.804 winning percentage) with Bynum and went 25-7 (.781) during the games that he missed. In the first game that Bynum sat out, Bryant set a Madison Square Garden record by scoring 61 points in a 126-117 Lakers win, emphatically sending a message to his teammates that their championship quest would not be derailed by Bynum's absence.

James and Wade are praised for "making their teammates better." I prefer to say that great players "put their teammates in the best possible position to succeed." As I explained during last year's NBA Finals, "Magic Johnson did not make James Worthy able to run fast and jump high but Magic fed Worthy with passes that enabled Worthy to utilize those skills to score. It used to be said that Jordan did not make his teammates better, a criticism that Jordan scoffed at by retorting, 'You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep).'" There is good reason to believe that assist statistics are bogus, so I don't base my evaluation of a player's passing ability primarily on those numbers. An excellent example of how Bryant places his teammates in the best possible position to succeed is Pau Gasol, whose field goal percentage has soared since joining the Lakers; the primary reason for that is that opposing teams are reluctant to double team Gasol when Bryant is on the court, so Gasol now has the opportunity to use his skills to go one on one instead of having to constantly battle against a second defender. Gasol is a very skilled player but he is a finesse player and he works a lot better in space than he does when defenders make body contact with him (as became painfully evident during last year's Finals).

During the April 9 telecast of the Lakers 116-102 win over the Nuggets, TNT's Mike Fratello said, "Every player that we've talked to that played (for Team USA) has credited Kobe with being the guy that they followed the lead that he set, the example that he set with his work ethic." Can anyone else win the MVP if Bryant is essentially the mentor who is teaching the younger players about how to consistently prepare and perform like champions AND he is still playing at such a high level?

Some people make a big fuss about boxscore numbers while others look at "advanced statistics" but in order to accurately evaluate players there is no substitute for watching games with understanding. The problem is that some of the "stat gurus" seemingly do not watch games at all and few if any of them actually understand what they are seeing when they do watch games. Regardless of what some people may think that the numbers show this year, Bryant performed at least as well overall this season as he did when he won the 2008 MVP. In fact, Bryant's field goal percentage, free throw percentage and turnover rate are actually even better than they were last season.


In the immediate aftermath of Bynum's injury, Bryant increased his scoring to over 30 ppg for a period of time while also raising his field goal percentage and he was clearly the leader in the MVP race (despite what anyone else may have said); however, after carrying that heavy load for more than a month, Bryant's production fell off in March, the Lakers dropped some winnable games and James' Cavaliers took over the best record in the NBA. This is the first season since 2001-02 in which Bryant clearly performed worse after the All-Star break than he did prior to the All-Star break.

A March 17 home loss to the Sixers in which Bryant only scored 11 points on 5-15 shooting was particularly costly; right after that game, I wrote, "I don't believe in putting too much stock in one game but it has to be said that this game could be a turning point in NBA history. If the MVP race between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is close--and it certainly should be--then which team ends up with the best record could be the deciding factor. The Lakers' loss coupled with the Cavs' impressive home win versus Orlando vaulted the Cavs into the number one spot." The Cavs never relinquished their grip on the number one overall record.

LeBron James:


James has led the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA. James has relentlessly attacked his few skill set weaknesses (free throw shooting, three point shooting, defense) so thoroughly that only one flaw remains: midrange shooting.

Although some people place too much emphasis on this, James has the best all-around boxscore numbers among the three top MVP contenders. Perhaps more significant than the raw numbers is the fact that James led the Cavaliers in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots, thus becoming just the sixth five-tool player in NBA/ABA history; this distinction has only been possible since 1972-73 in the ABA and 1973-74 in the NBA, the years when those leagues began officially tracking steals and blocked shots (technically, both Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace averaged more blocked shots per game than James but neither of those players blocked 100 shots or appeared in 70 games, the minimum NBA requirements to be ranked among the league leaders; in terms of raw totals, James led the Cavs in all five categories).


James' erratic midrange jump shot still leaves him--and the Cavaliers--vulnerable against elite defensive teams that will sag off of James and force him to make that shot, something that James was not able to do versus the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals or the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals, the last two playoff series that the Cavs have lost.

Dwyane Wade:


The NBA's scoring champion has done an excellent job of leading the Heat to a playoff berth. In addition to his scoring prowess, Wade also ranked eighth in the league in assists and second in steals while becoming the first NBA player 6-4 or under to block more than 100 shots (106); David "Skywalker" Thompson (listed at 6-4) blocked 102 shots as a rookie in 1975-76 for the ABA's Denver Nuggets and Thompson blocked 99 shots for the Nuggets in 1977-78 (two seasons after the NBA-ABA merger). Dennis "Airplane" Johnson (also listed at 6-4) had 97 rejections in 1978-79 for the Seattle SuperSonics.

Wade led the NBA this season with 12 games of at least 40 points (James had nine such games and Bryant had four, though Bryant's 61 point outburst was the top single game output this season) and he lifted his numbers across the board after the All-Star break, averaging 33.9 ppg, 8.3 apg and 5.2 rpg.


Wade is essentially "mini-LeBron": they play a similar style and have similar skill set strengths and weaknesses but LeBron James is (at least) five inches taller and 45 pounds heavier. All other things being equal, size--specifically, height--matters and we saw an excellent example of this when James nullified Wade in the fourth quarter of a Cleveland victory over Miami by acting as the double-teaming defender versus Miami's star; Wade could not see over James to pass or score. As ESPN's Tim Legler and Jalen Rose pointed out after that game, if the situation had been reversed, James would have easily been able to see right over the much shorter Wade.

Although I have consistently said that the MVP should be chosen based on skill set evaluations--with the only exception being a truly dominant performance by a low post player, a la Shaquille O'Neal in his prime--the reality is that the MVP voters factor team success into the equation, which is why there has not been an MVP from a team with fewer than 50 wins since Moses Malone in 1981-82; Malone's Houston Rockets went 46-36 but they also were coming off of an NBA Finals appearance in 1980-81. While Wade's overall performance was great and his post All-Star break numbers were outstanding, neither his total body of work nor his post All-Star break production matches what Kobe Bryant did in 2005-06: Bryant led the NBA in scoring with a 35.4 ppg average--the ninth best single season scoring average in NBA-ABA history--and he was even more productive after the All-Star break (36.0 ppg on .461 field goal shooting, .364 three point shooting and .873 free throw shooting). Bryant had 26 40 point games that season--more than Wade and James combined to produce in 2008-09--including an 81 point game and 62 points in three quarters versus a Dallas team that made it to the Finals; Bryant's Lakers--an otherwise thoroughly mediocre outfit at best (see below)--won 17 of those 26 games.

Wade is receiving a lot of praise for allegedly carrying a subpar supporting cast so far but that kind of "analysis" is just another example of media members incorrectly evaluating a situation and coming to an erroneous conclusion: while many "experts" expected that the Heat would be terrible this season, in my Eastern Conference preview I predicted that the Heat would earn the seventh seed and I declared: "Even with the injuries to Wade and others and with Shaquille O'Neal mailing in the first half of the season before being traded, there still is no reason that the Heat should have become the worst team in the East--eight games behind the Knicks! On paper, they will probably be the 'most improved' team this season because they figure to win at least 40 games." The Heat shut Wade down for the final 21 games of the 2007-08 season, used a glorified D-League lineup, went 4-17 in that stretch and positioned themselves to get a Lottery Pick who has been very productive this season (Michael Beasley). In Wade's final appearance of the 2008 season before the Heat pulled the plug, he had 24 points on 11-20 field goal shooting, eight assists and four rebounds as the Heat narrowly lost (97-94) in Atlanta to a Hawks team that later pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games. In other words, last year's Heat were not a "normal" 15 win team; it is pretty obvious that the Heat did their best in the final fourth of the season to secure a top draft pick. "Tanking" does not necessarily involve "throwing" a game in terms of deliberately playing poorly; all a team has to do to achieve the desired result is put a group of players on the court who cannot possibly win even if they try their best.

The most common starting lineup for the Heat this season featured Wade, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony; that group went 14-10, the best winning percentage by any Miami starting lineup that played together for more than five games. Marion is a four-time All-Star, Haslem started for Miami's 2006 championship team and Chalmers is a very solid rookie. Anthony is obviously a journeyman but even when he started he often played less than 20 mpg, so he essentially was a token starter. Since the Heat traded Marion and Marcus Banks to Toronto for Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon, their regular starting lineup has been Wade, O'Neal, Haslem, Chalmers and Moon, a quintet that has posted a 9-8 record. O'Neal is a six-time All-Star who finished third in MVP voting in 2004, while Moon is an athletic and energetic player whose skill set blends in nicely with Wade's (they have hooked up for many alley-oop plays). Granted, neither O'Neal nor Marion are as good as they were when they made multiple All-Star teams but they are veteran players.

In contrast, consider the two most common starting lineups for Bryant's L.A. Lakers in 2005-06: Bryant, Brian Cook, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker (14-11) and Bryant, Kwame Brown, Mihm, Odom and Parker (13-9). Parker started all 82 games that season but even though he is 27 now and should be in his prime he is not even in the league; Brown, Cook and Mihm are career journeymen, while Odom is a talented enigma who has not made the All-Star team even once. Bryant carried that ragtag group to a 45-37 record and the seventh seed in the West; they pushed the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the first round.

If we are choosing up sides to go four on four, are you taking O'Neal, Haslem, Moon and Chalmers or Odom, Mihm, Brown and Parker? The reality is that the Heat are actually doing marginally better than they should have objectively been expected to do--they have earned the fifth seed in the East instead of landing in the seventh spot where I expected them to finish--but it does not surprise me at all that misinformed people look at this situation superficially and spout all kinds of nonsense.

Bryant was nearly as spectacular in the 2007 season as he had been in 2006, leading the league in scoring again (31.6 ppg) while increasing his field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding and assists. Bryant had 18 40 point games, leading the Lakers to victory in 13 of them, and the Lakers finished seventh in the West before bowing to a tough Phoenix team in the first round. Parker again played in all 82 games (starting 80 of them) and the Lakers had a starting center by committee consisting of Kwame Brown and second year player Andrew Bynum, who was so out of shape that he often would get out of breath after going up and down the court just a couple times. It should also not be forgotten that in addition to his scoring exploits, Bryant was a member of the All-Defensive First Team in 2006 and 2007.

Bryant was clearly the best player in the NBA at that time but he finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2006 and third in the MVP voting in 2007.

Based on the precedent set in 2006 and 2007, it really is not justifiable to give this year's MVP to Wade unless there is a way to retroactively give Bryant the 2006 and 2007 MVPs. That may sound flippant but I am serious: MVP awards are one measuring stick that is used to evaluate a player's career/legacy and it truly is not fair to change the standards now in order to honor a season by Wade that is simply not better than seasons posted by Bryant in 2006 and 2007--and, on top of that, in 2006 and 2007 Bryant was not competing against the kinds of MVP campaigns that Bryant and James have had this year (by any objective consideration, the seasons that 2006 MVP Steve Nash and 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki had would barely put them in this season's MVP discussion). People who say that Wade deserves to be "mentioned" in this season's MVP race are absolutely correct--he deserves to be "mentioned" and then to finish third in the voting.


I devoted the most attention in this post to Wade because I think that the comparison of his performance this season to Bryant's efforts in 2006 and 2007 is historically significant and that few people have really taken the time to objectively analyze those seasons. I get the sense that Wade's "third party candidacy" has garnered so much support now that he may in fact move ahead of Bryant to finish second in the official MVP voting. Wade deserves to finish in the "honorable mention" third spot but Bryant and James should split all of the first place votes.

Until March, I continued to maintain the opinion that I have had since last season, namely that Bryant's complete skill set slightly trumps James' powerful athleticism and improving--but still incomplete--skill set. However, in March, James led the Cavs to a 16-1 record while averaging 28.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 8.4 apg; he shot .472 from the field, .386 from three point range and .759 from the free throw line. Bryant's Lakers went 10-5 in March as he averaged 25.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 4.6 apg while shooting .432 from the field, .338 from three point range and .840 from the free throw line. Bryant's skill set is still more complete than James' is and James' inability to consistently make midrange jumpers could be a factor in the postseason but in a close MVP race James has to get the nod on the basis of outperforming Bryant down the stretch as the Cavs wrested the best record in the league from the Lakers.

During the 2009 All-Star Weekend, four-time MVP (1974-76 ABA, 1981 NBA) Julius Erving said of Bryant and James, "Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line." This year's playoffs may reveal whether Bryant truly passed that torch to James for good in March or if Bryant merely needed to get his second wind in order to recapture the torch during the crucible of postseason competition.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 PM


2008-09 Playoff Predictions

Taking a brief look backward before moving forward with my predictions, in my 2008-09 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of the eight playoff teams, while I went seven for eight in my 2008-09 Western Conference Preview; my only blemish in the West was picking Phoenix over Denver, while in the East I chose Toronto and Washington over Atlanta and Chicago. The Suns have chronically underachieved ever since losing game one of last year's playoffs, while the Nuggets--simply by maintaining roughly the same overall strength after losing Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby but bringing in Chauncey Billups and Chris Andersen--slid past several Western powers who have been beset by injuries to key All-Star players (San Antonio, Houston, Utah, New Orleans). There is no way that the Raptors should have been this bad--they are essentially the Suns of the East in terms of underachievement--while injuries cost the Wizards not only Gilbert Arenas for longer than expected but also Brendan Haywood, Antonio Daniels (before he was traded) and Caron Butler. In my preview I called the Bulls "the East's 'mystery guest'" and said that in the best case scenario they could win as many as 45 games; that best case scenario came pretty close to happening. One pick that I just flat out got wrong was saying that the Hawks would fall short of making the playoffs; I thought that the East would improve overall (in terms of the record required to nab the eighth spot), so that the Hawks could possibly win more games than they did in 2008 and still miss the playoffs. What actually happened is that the Hawks improved from 37-45 to 47-35, while the win total of the eighth place team only increased by two.

Last season, I correctly picked five of the eight East playoff teams and seven of the eight West playoff teams; in 2006-07, I went seven for eight in the East and six for eight in the West.

In 2007-08, I correctly picked the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series and I correctly chose a Finals matchup of the Celtics versus the Lakers, but I wrongly predicted that the Lakers would win the championship. In 2006-07, I also correctly picked the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series and that year I correctly predicted before the playoffs began that the Spurs would beat the Cavs in the NBA Finals. In 2005-06, I went 10-5 but did not correctly identify either Finalist before the playoffs began. In 2004-05, I went 9-6 and correctly picked both Finalists before the playoffs began but incorrectly chose the Pistons to beat the Spurs. So, in four years of posting online series by series predictions I have a 43-17 record and have correctly picked both Finals participants before the playoffs began three times.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, what I think will happen after that and who I predict will win it all.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Cleveland (66-16) vs. #8 Detroit (39-43)

Season series: Cleveland, 3-1

Detroit can win if...their big men dominate the paint defensively and on the glass, if the Pistons keep LeBron James out of the paint by forcing him to shoot contested midrange jump shots and if the point guard combination of Rodney Stuckey-Will Bynum makes good decisions down the stretch.

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers are a more focused team that is better than the Pistons offensively and--most importantly--defensively. Also, LeBron James is the best player on either team by a wide margin and he figures to be the dominant force in the series. Cleveland's big man rotation of Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Anderson Varejao-Ben Wallace matches up well with Detroit's frontcourt, though Wallace's health status is a concern. If Wallace cannot play, though, the Cavs have an able veteran replacement in Joe Smith plus a youthful, energetic J.J. Hickson can also provide some quality minutes.

Other things to consider: Just three short years ago, the Pistons were the beast of the East and the young Cavs were trying to prove themselves against Detroit in the crucible of playoff competition. Detroit won in 2006, the Cavs beat the Pistons in a tough series the following year but this time around it should be a sweep for the Cavs. I offer a more detailed take on the recent Cleveland-Detroit rivalry in general and this series in particular in my newest CavsNews.com article.

#2 Boston (62-20) vs. #7 Chicago (41-41)

Season series: Boston, 2-1

Chicago can win if
...the Bulls defend and rebound well enough to get out and run, enabling them to score points in transition as opposed to having to face Boston's half court defense.

Boston will win because...the defending champions are a playoff tested team that is tougher than Chicago mentally and physically.

Other things to consider: The latest word out of Boston is that Kevin Garnett will miss the entire playoffs; there was an unintentional, dark humor quality to the juxtaposition of the headlines about Garnett's injury and Boston GM Danny Ainge's heart attack: fortunately, Ainge is expected to make a complete recovery. Clearly, losing Garnett is a devastating blow to Boston's chances of repeating. However, in the past two seasons the Celtics showed--at least during the regular season--that they could win a high percentage of games without Garnett, even against good teams. Although there is some validity to the comparison of this athletic Chicago team with the athletic Atlanta team that gave Boston fits in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Bulls do not have anyone who is as good as Joe Johnson. In the absolute worst case scenario for the Celtics, they will rely on home court advantage to advance by winning game seven but I really don't expect this series to be nearly as competitive as some pundits apparently think that it will be. I look forward to seeing Derrick Rose get his first taste of the playoffs.

#3 Orlando (59-23) vs. #6 Philadelphia (41-41)

Season series: Orlando, 3-0

Philadelphia can win if...the Sixers can single cover Dwight Howard, stay at home on the three point shooters and run for layups in the transition game after forcing misses.

Orlando will win because...even though the Sixers did a decent job versus Howard in the regular season (holding him to 15.7 ppg) the Magic still swept the season series; that is a pretty strong sign that even if the 76ers play as well as they can play they still are not likely to beat Orlando four times in seven games. The Magic are more playoff tested than the Sixers and that experience will come in handy down the stretch.

Other things to consider: Every year we hear about lower seeded teams that higher seeded teams supposedly "don't want to see." ESPN's Avery Johnson has already gone on record predicting that the Sixers will beat the Magic. While there have been some famous upsets in that vein (notably Denver over Seattle in 1994 and Golden State over Johnson's Dallas team in 2007), most of the time there are very good reasons that one team is at or below .500 while the other team won 50-plus games and enjoys home court advantage. It would be interesting if someone researched the history of teams that other teams supposedly "don't want to see" and figured out what the playoff winning percentages of those teams turned out to be; this cliche is used every year and usually turns out to be completely off target.

#4 Atlanta (47-35) vs. #5 Miami (43-39)

Season series: Atlanta, 3-1

Miami can win if...Dwyane Wade scores well over 30 ppg with a good shooting percentage and low turnover rate, Jermaine O'Neal provides a presence in the paint and rookies Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers offer solid contributions.

Atlanta will win because
...even though the Heat like to get in the open court and run the Hawks are actually better equipped to play that way than the Heat are.

Other things to consider: This should be a fun series to watch as both teams push the ball up and down the court, with high flyers like Wade, Jamario Moon and Josh Smith providing numerous dunks from all angles. Due to Wade you have to give the Heat a puncher's chance to win a game in Atlanta but over the course of the entire series I expect Atlanta's overall depth and playoff experience to prevail. This series could easily go six or seven games, though, particularly if Miami's rookies Beasley and Chalmers are productive.

Western Conference First Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #8 Utah (48-34)

Season series: L.A., 2-1

Utah can win if...they find a way to match up with the Lakers' bigs in the paint, don't allow Kobe Bryant to completely get loose and figure out how to win at least one game on the road (unfortunately for Jazz fans, none of those three things seem likely to happen).

L.A. will win because...the Lakers are a bigger, deeper and more versatile team, Kobe Bryant is easily the best player on either team and the Lakers enjoy home court advantage, a big factor considering Utah's terrible struggles away from home not just this season but for the past couple years.

Other things to consider: The Jazz are a strange team because they are very physical offensively--setting screens and banging people around in the paint--but they are not particularly tough defensively or on the glass. Those two weaknesses are the source of Utah's road difficulties and are why this figures to be a short--yet competitive--series; by that I mean that I expect the Lakers to win in five games but that several of the games will probably be close. The likely scenario is that the Lakers will win one game in L.A. fairly comfortably and one game by a close margin, split the two games in Utah and then close out the series back in L.A. in game five.

#2 Denver (54-28) vs. #7 New Orleans (49-33)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Denver can win if...the series goes seven games, because home court advantage is most significant in that deciding game. Overall, the most important things for the Nuggets to do are to stay focused defensively on a consistent basis, design/implement an effective plan to try to contain Chris Paul and make sure that Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith do not take too many bad shots.

New Orleans will win because...Chauncey Billups will struggle to stay in front of Chris Paul and no other Nugget will be able to deal with Paul either. I expect Paul to have a really big series. I think that the best strategy against him is to guard him one on one, stay at home on the shooters (and on Tyson Chandler rolling to the hoop for lob passes) and dare Paul to consistently score 30-35 points or more but I don't think that the Nuggets will be disciplined enough to effectively carry out such a plan.

Carmelo Anthony has shot .422 or worse from the field in four of his five career playoff series (all first round losses, none lasting more than five games), including .364 or worse in three of those series, and if his offense goes south again the Nuggets will not be able to score enough points to win this series.

Other things to consider: Other than perhaps Atlanta-Miami, this is the most intriguing first round series. Although the respective seedings of these teams whisper "mismatch" the reality is that Denver only won five more games than New Orleans and the Hornets were without the services of Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler for significant portions of the season. When those two players were in the fold last season, the Hornets won 56 games and were the second seeded team in the West. Chandler just returned to action, while Stojakovic is trying to shake off the rust after being in and out of the lineup throughout the season. Neither player is likely to be 100% effective during this series but if they can make some kind of positive contribution that should be enough to push New Orleans over the top assuming that All-Stars Chris Paul and David West perform at a high level. I am not sold on the idea that Denver is an elite team, even though the Nuggets finished with the second best record in the West; I still think that their seeding is an artifact of how banged up most of the other top West teams were.

An interesting thing to watch in this series could be KHF: knucklehead factor. The Nuggets have three guys who are prone to losing control of their emotions and making bad plays at the most inopportune times: Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin. One or more of those guys could cost the Nuggets a game by taking poor shots, getting a technical foul, committing a flagrant foul and/or acting the fool in some other fashion.

Game one in this series is HUGE. If the Hornets can stroll into Denver and strip the Nuggets of the home court advantage that the Nuggets worked all season to get then it will be most interesting to see how Coach George Karl and the KHF crew respond. The team that wins game one wins NBA playoff series roughly 80% of the time and if the Hornets take a 1-0 lead I think that they can close out the series in six games. If the series lasts seven games then I expect that the Nuggets will ride the emotion of their home crowd and advance but I'm taking New Orleans in six.

#3 San Antonio (54-28) vs. #6 Dallas (50-32)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Dallas can win if...Dirk Nowitzki has an MVP flashback and averages something like 30 ppg and 12 rpg, Jason Kidd plays Tony Parker to a standstill (or reasonably close to it) and Jason Terry has a big series.

San Antonio will win because...Tony Parker will run circles around whoever checks him and the Spurs will find a way to get more key defensive stops and rebounds than the Mavericks do.

Other things to consider: The Spurs will obviously miss Manu Ginobili during this postseason but assuming that Tim Duncan's creaky knees don't give out San Antonio has enough to get by Dallas.

#4 Portland (54-28) vs. #5 Houston (53-29)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if...the Rockets are able to keep the pace slow and establish Yao Ming as the dominant player in the series. Ron Artest and Shane Battier must contain Brandon Roy.

Portland will win because...the young Trail Blazers are a well balanced team, with a roster containing quality bigs, good shooters, good playmakers and good slashers. Portland's defense will force the Rockets away from their strengths and the Trail Blazers will score enough in transition--at least at home--to prevent Houston from clamping down defensively in the half court set.

Other things to consider: On the final day of the season, the Rockets still had a chance to finish second in the West but they blew a double digit lead versus Dallas and after all of the other dominoes fell into place they had plummeted to the fifth seed. No matter what anyone says, that is psychologically devastating. There has been a lot of talk about how good the Rockets have been since Tracy McGrady was shut down for the season but what has actually happened is that the Rockets replaced a hobbled McGrady with a healthy Ron Artest. The Rockets gained a lot defensively in that "transaction" but they lost ballhandling, playmaking and clutch shooting. ESPN's Jamal Mashburn rightly noted that a big part of the reason for the collapse versus Dallas was that the Rockets missed McGrady's scoring and playmaking; they had no one who could either feed Yao Ming in the post or else create a good shot and instead they had Artest jacking up poor shots from all angles.

This looks like a series that could go seven games and the Blazers enjoy the trump card of playing that seventh game in Portland. I am a little leery about picking such a young team to win but the flip side of that is that the veteran Rockets have yet to prove that they can get out of the first round, either.


As mentioned in the Denver-New Orleans preview, home court advantage in general and game one in particular are very important; the game one winner almost always wins an NBA playoff series, so that is the best opportunity for the underdog team to seize home court advantage. It gets progressively harder to win on the road during a series and game sevens on the road are generally automatic death unless the underdog team has a cast of grizzled veterans. Last year, the game one winner captured seven of the eight first round series and six of the seven subsequent series. These initial games on Saturday and Sunday are very, very important. Sometimes you hear underdog teams talk about finding a way to get a split in the first two road games but what they really need to do is win game one and put immediate pressure on the favorite.

If these first round series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Cleveland-Atlanta, Boston-Orlando, L.A.-Portland and San Antonio-New Orleans. The Hawks will not cause the Cavs nearly as many problems this season as they caused the Celtics last year. If Kevin Garnett were healthy then I'd take Boston over Orlando with no second thoughts. Even sans Garnett, the Celtics are good enough to beat the Magic if they use the right game plan and play together; the way to beat Orlando is to single cover Dwight Howard, stay at home on the three point shooters and dare Howard to produce 30-35 points or more (somewhat like the game plan to beat the Hornets involves daring Chris Paul to dominate by scoring). Celtics bigs like Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe cannot stop Howard but they should be able to contain him enough so that the Celtic perimeter players do not have to leave the three point shooters open. One problem for the Celtics, particularly as they advance deeper in the playoffs, is that their bench is much weaker this year than it was last year (and Garnett's injury further depletes the bench by making one of the reserves become a starter). I am still not a fan of the Stephon Marbury acquisition and if he ends up having to play significant minutes his poor defense and/or erratic shooting and ballhandling could cost Boston a crucial game. Nevertheless, with game seven at home in their back pockets, I expect the Celtics to beat the Magic. However, without Garnett the Celtics have no chance to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven game series; in fact, I would have picked the Cavs this year even if Garnett were 100%.

Despite not being a playoff team for several years, the Trail Blazers have manufactured in their minds some kind of rivalry with the defending Western Conference Champion L.A. Lakers. The Blazers do very well against the Lakers in Portland but to beat them in the postseason the Blazers will have to win at least one game in L.A. I say "at least" because I suspect that Kobe Bryant takes L.A.'s Portland losing streak very personally and that he will see to it that it comes to an end, in which case the Blazers would then need two wins in L.A. in order to advance--and that is not going to happen.

Last year, I correctly picked the Spurs to beat the Hornets because I expected Manu Ginobili to be the X factor and that is exactly what happened as Ginobili scored a game-high 26 points in San Antonio's game seven victory. The Hornets then signed James Posey to be a "Ginobili stopper" but it now turns out that Ginobili is out of commission for the playoffs. Even though the Hornets have a much worse seed than they did last year, they are in a better bracket (in terms of matchups) and I expect them to face the Lakers in the Conference Finals--but that is where their dream postseason will end, as the Lakers will triumph in six games.

For quite some time we seemed to be heading toward a Cleveland-L.A. Finals showdown, a "clash of the generations" between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Last year, I wrote that it would be great to see a Finals matchup between the game's two best players and I think that is exactly what we will see this June. Bryant still has a more complete skill set than James does but James deserves much respect for the way that he has ruthlessly eliminated every weakness (free throw shooting, three point shooting, defense) from his game except for one (midrange jump shot). The Cavs are a better defensive team than the Lakers and in a pivotal March stretch the Cavs seized the overall home court advantage from the Lakers; that defensive edge and the home court advantage are the two reasons that I expect that the Cavs will beat the Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals.

Whether James claims his first NBA title or Bryant shuts up his critics by winning a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, the sad thing is that the "loser" in the Finals matchup will likely be bombarded with a lot of unfair and inaccurate media criticism; if James and the Cavs fall short then James will be accused of lacking a killer instinct because he did not triumph even with home court advantage, while if Bryant and the Lakers are denied for the second year in a row then all of the old, stupid comparisons of Bryant with Michael Jordan and O'Neal will once again be revisited. The truth is that both the Cavs and the Lakers have had historically great seasons but they did it in the same year and there can only be one champion. Whatever happens, I will celebrate the accomplishment of whoever wins instead of casting aspersions on this year's runner up.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Handing Out the Hardware for the 2008-09 Season

Awards season is rapidly approaching in the NBA. Listed below are the choices of several well known NBA commentators, followed by my selections--except for MVP; I have listed the commentators' MVP selections but I will reveal my MVP choice in a separate post devoted exclusively to objectively analyzing the MVP race, focusing on the three main candidates: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (listed here alphabetically, so don't read anything into the order of the names). It is interesting that there is general agreement about who should win several of these awards, which is a bit unusual. Note that not every commentator made a choice in each category.

MVP: Mark Jackson (ESPN/ABC), Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN/ABC), Hubie Brown (ESPN/ABC), J.A. Adande (ESPN/ABC), Avery Johnson (ESPN/ABC), Jamal Mashburn (ESPN/ABC), Ernie Johnson (TNT), Charles Barkley (TNT), Doug Collins (TNT), Kenny Smith (TNT), Chris Webber (TNT) and Chris Mannix (Sports Illustrated) all chose LeBron James. Jon Barry (ESPN/ABC) chose Dwyane Wade. Mike Wilbon (ESPN/ABC) has fluctuated between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James but at last check was leaning toward James.

Ernie Johnson actually is an MVP voter this season; the MVP ballot contains five spots, so he voted for James followed by Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Mannix listed Bryant as his second place finisher. Hubie Brown listed Howard and Wade as his second and third place finishers, explaining that they don't "get enough love." Brown ranked Bryant fourth and Chris Paul fifth.

Van Gundy strongly supported Bryant for second place behind James, saying, "Kobe Bryant is closer than the (voting) outcome will show. I also think that the players should have a vote--as should the coaches--in who wins the MVP." Van Gundy argued that no one knows the league better than the players and the coaches, adding that media members are primarily familiar with whichever team they cover and may also be biased based on their interactions with certain players; his broadcast partner Mike Breen countered by saying that he--and other media members--take the voting very seriously and do their best to be objective and that it is just as likely that players and coaches could harbor biases regarding certain players as it is that media members could be influenced by such concerns. Neither Van Gundy nor Breen mentioned that the players did in fact vote for the MVP from its inception in 1956 until 1980. Part of the reason that the players lost that privilege was the perception that petty biases affected the voting. That said, perhaps some adjustment should be made now so that players' votes count one third, coaches' votes count one third and votes from a media panel count one third.

Rookie of the Year: Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Hubie Brown, J.A. Adande, Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Doug Collins, Kenny Smith, David Aldridge (TNT/NBA TV) and Chris Mannix chose Derrick Rose. Chris Webber chose Rose and O.J. Mayo as co-winners.

Ernie Johnson placed Mayo second and Russell Westbrook third on his ballot. As I have already stated, I would choose Rose as the Rookie of the Year. Mayo and Westbrook are valid runner up choices but the reality is that frontcourt players Kevin Love, Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol have arguably been at least as productive as Mayo and Westbrook, even though the guards score more and have flashier styles.

Defensive Player of the Year: J.A. Adande, Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Ernie Johnson, Doug Collins, Kenny Smith, Chris Webber, David Aldridge and Chris Mannix chose Dwight Howard. Charles Barkley chose LeBron James, while Mark Jackson split his vote between Howard and James.

Ernie Johnson's ballot reads Howard, James, Bryant. I would vote for Howard, who seems likely to be a landslide winner. Howard is the league's best rebounder and shotblocker. He is the NBA's most dominating presence in the paint. James has stepped up his defensive game and deserves to make the All-Defensive First Team but it is difficult for even the best perimeter defenders to have the same kind of impact that a great big man can have, a point that Smith emphasized. Several commentators correctly noted that although Wade is a spectacular and athletic defender he could still improve his one on one defense; Wade does not accept that challenge in the same way that Bryant and James do.

It is also worth mentioning that even though a lot of people act like James invented the so-called "chase down" blocked shot the truth is that Julius Erving patented that play decades ago and there are many examples of him doing that in regular season, playoff and even All-Star play; in fact, a 37 year old Erving in his final season chased down Ricky Pierce in a playoff game in 1987, causing CBS analyst Billy Cunningham (who played against a young Erving in the ABA and later coached Erving as a 76er), to exclaim that if he could do that he would not retire. Erving blocked at least 100 shots 12 times in his final 15 seasons and almost certainly did so as a rookie in 1971-72 but the ABA did not officially track blocked shots that year. As a 37 year old shooting guard in 1986-87, Erving blocked 94 shots in 60 games. Other than perhaps Terry Tyler--who did not have Erving's longevity--Erving was the greatest midsize (6-7 and under) shotblocker in pro basketball history; I mention this only to put the shotblocking feats of James and Wade into some historical perspective: as a 6-8 (or possibly 6-9) 24 year old with incredible hops, James blocked 93 shots in 81 games this season, while the 27 year old Wade (listed at 6-4 but closer to 6-2) blocked 106 shots in 79 games. Considering all of the attention that James and Wade have received for shotblocking totals that would have been among the worst of Erving's career, it is easy to understand why Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams told me, "If he (Erving) were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."

Sixth Man of the Year: Hubie Brown, J.A. Adande, Avery Johnson, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Doug Collins, Kenny Smith, David Aldridge and Chris Mannix chose Jason Terry. Jamal Mashburn chose J.R. Smith. Chris Webber chose Nate Robinson.

Ernie Johnson's ballot includes Jason Terry, J.R. Smith and Travis Outlaw. Terry should be the landslide choice in this category; he is averaging more ppg off of the bench than any player since Ricky Pierce in 1989-90.

Most Improved Player: Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Chris Mannix chose Devin Harris. Doug Collins and Chris Webber chose David Lee. Kenny Smith chose Paul Millsap. Mark Jackson chose Rajon Rondo. Jeff Van Gundy chose LeBron James. J.A. Adande chose Danny Granger.

Ernie Johnson voted for Harris followed by Lee and Granger.

David Aldridge (TNT/NBA TV) said that this is the league's most ridiculous award and he apparently feels so strongly about this that he neglected to even make a selection; his reasoning is that the criteria are entirely subjective, noting that some people tout Kevin Durant as a candidate but Durant was a lottery pick and thus is simply doing what he should be expected to do. I see Aldridge's point to some extent but, on the other hand, if a top draft pick improves dramatically from one year to the next why shouldn't he be eligible for this award? Durant would actually be a very valid choice this year--he has thrived since the Thunder belatedly heeded what I wrote prior to his rookie season and shifted him back to his natural small forward position--but I would choose Devin Harris. How many people expected Harris to emerge as an All-Star in New Jersey? The voting will clearly be split up among many candidates but I suspect that either Harris or Granger will win; Granger is certainly a worthy choice. Van Gundy's selection of James should not be dismissed out of hand considering how much James improved several of his few remaining weaknesses (defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting, leaving only midrange shooting as a summer 2009 project).

Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson, Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith chose Mike Brown. Jeff Van Gundy chose Brown, Doc Rivers and his brother Stan Van Gundy. Hubie Brown and Ernie Johnson chose George Karl. Doug Collins and Chris Webber chose Nate McMillan. Chris Mannix chose Stan Van Gundy followed by Mike Brown. J.A. Adande chose Rick Adelman.

Ernie Johnson's ballot reads George Karl, Rick Adelman, Mike Brown; he said that as many as nine coaches deserve consideration and TNT game analyst Mike Fratello made a similar point. I agree that this year there are many deserving candidates but I would choose Mike Brown. Many people use this award to honor a coach whose team supposedly overachieved but that is a very subjective assessment; media members who underestimate a team at the start of a season often vote for a coach who simply led his team to the number of wins that the team realistically should have been expected to have in the first place. Brown's Cavaliers are the best defensive team in the NBA and own the best record in the league; it is hard to picture any coach getting anything more out of that team than he did. Ever since he arrived in Cleveland, Brown has ignored the know nothing critics who mocked his supposedly unimaginative offense, because Brown understands that championship teams are built at the defensive end of the court. Brown's focus on defense already resulted in an NBA Finals appearance in 2007 and will likely lead to another NBA Finals appearance this season.

Rick Adelman would be my runner up. He deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Rockets in the hunt despite Tracy McGrady being in and out of the lineup prior to having to sit out the balance of the season; Adelman also did a nice job of deploying newly acquired Ron Artest and developing point guard Aaron Brooks.

Executive of the Year: Mannix chose Denver's Mark Warkentien, with Orlando's Otis Smith placing second. Mark Jackson chose Denver's duo of Rex Chapman/Mark Warkentien. Jeff Van Gundy chose Cleveland's Danny Ferry.

Several NBA executives have done good jobs recently, but Danny Ferry definitely deserves to win the Executive of the Year award.

The Cleveland Cavaliers started LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in game four of the 2007 NBA Finals; Gibson was subbing for the injured Larry Hughes, who started 68 of the 70 regular season games that he played in for Cleveland that season. This season, Cleveland's most frequently used starting lineup consisted of James, Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Mo Williams and Delonte West; that quintet went 25-5. Gibson and Pavlovic are part of a deep bench that includes Anderson Varejao (who started some games when Wallace was hurt), Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and J.J. Hickson.

Ilgauskas, Wallace and Szczerbiak are former All-Stars, while Williams made the All-Star team for the first time this season. Wallace is a former four-time Defensive Player of the Year who still has a significant impact at that end of the court.

People who don't understand NBA basketball will try to convince you that the Cavs consist of nothing more than LeBron James--just like no nothings from a previous era referred to Michael Jordan's "supporting cast" (which included Scottie Pippen, a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list)--but the reality is that the Cavs own the NBA's deepest, most flexible roster; no other team has that many players who can play at least 15 solid, dependable minutes at any given time. Cleveland's bench is so good that they almost beat the 76ers by themselves in the last game of the season, a game that the 76ers definitely wanted to win because of potential playoff seeding implications.


Just like last season, none of the commentators listed above revealed their choices for the All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defensive Teams; I assume that this is because these selections would not fit conveniently into a sound bite, but those three honors are very significant and deserve thoughtful consideration. Here are my choices:

All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Dirk Nowitzki

All-NBA Second Team
G Chris Paul
G Brandon Roy
C Yao Ming
F Tim Duncan
F Pau Gasol

All-NBA Third Team
G Tony Parker
G Chauncey Billups
C Shaquille O'Neal
F Paul Pierce
F David West

The All-NBA Team does not distinguish between point guards and shooting guards (or small forwards and power forwards), so despite being the best point guard in the NBA Chris Paul lands on the Second Team because he is not better than Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. The toughest First Team choice was the second forward slot but Nowitzki has been more consistent than Duncan this season, plus Nowitzki does not have an All-NBA level teammate like Duncan does yet his Mavericks won almost as many games as the Spurs did.

Pau Gasol started at center when Andrew Bynum was injured but Gasol played more games at forward than he did at center; voters who want to put another forward on the team and punish the Suns for missing the playoffs by leaving O'Neal out of the mix may shift Gasol to center in order to put Chris Bosh, Danny Granger or Kevin Durant on the team but from my perspective Bosh's Raptors underachieved, Granger missed too many games and I still would not classify Durant as an All-NBA level player.

Deron Williams ended up with some good statistics but he missed 14 games due to injury and he was not a consistently effective player until January, so that is just not a large enough body of work for a full season to merit inclusion on the All-NBA Team, particularly considering the performances turned in by several of the other top notch guards.

All-Defensive First Team

G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Ron Artest

All-Defensive Second Team

G Chris Paul
G Jason Kidd
C Chris Andersen
F Shane Battier
F Tim Duncan

This is the only award chosen by the coaches. Last year, I chose four of the five First Team players that the coaches ultimately selected (and my fifth First Team member--Raja Bell--made their Second Team, while their fifth First Team member--Bruce Bowen--made my Second Team) and overall I chose eight of the 10 players that the coaches honored (they had Dwight Howard and Tayshaun Prince on the Second Team, while I had Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd).

Commentators and casual fans sometimes deride Kobe Bryant's defense but the coaches annually vote Bryant on to the team and I don't expect that to change this season, though it is possible that he could end up on the Second Team by their reckoning.

Chris Andersen may seem like a reach--and I will be interested to see how many votes he gets from the coaches--but I have been very impressed with how he stepped right in and took over Marcus Camby's role; Andersen ranked second in the NBA in blocked shots while playing less than 21 mpg! Andersen's playing time may be held against him and he is technically a forward/center as opposed to a pure center but I believe that he has enough impact to merit being included on the team.

Jason Kidd does not defend small point guards as well as he did in the past, but the new defensive rules make it difficult for anyone to guard such players. Kidd finished third in the NBA in steals this season and he gives the Mavericks great flexibility because he can check shooting guards, enabling Jason Terry to be a shooting guard on offense but a point guard on defense when he and Kidd are on the court together.

The one player who I most regret leaving off is Rajon Rondo. I look at it this way: Bryant and Kidd have the size and savvy to guard multiple positions, Wade also can guard multiple positions and he has been an absolute terror even if one on one defense is not his strength and Paul disrupts ballhandlers more than any other point guard in the league. Rondo is also very disruptive but he is neither more disruptive than Paul nor does he have the ability to guard multiple positions like Bryant, Wade and Kidd do.

Bruce Bowen made the All-Defensive Team for the past eight years but he lost his starting job and saw his playing time slashed this season; the 37 year old is rapidly approaching the end of the line and it will be interesting to see how big of a role he has in the playoffs.

All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)

Derrick Rose
O.J. Mayo
Russell Westbrook
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love

All-Rookie Second Team

Marc Gasol
Eric Gordon
Michael Beasley
Mario Chalmers
Jason Thompson

Rudy Fernandez, Anthony Morrow and Greg Oden earn honorable mentions. Fernandez broke Kerry Kittles' NBA rookie record for three pointers in a season by draining 159 treys, Morrow led the league in three point field goal percentage and Oden provided a solid interior presence in 21.5 mpg for a 54 win Portland team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 PM


Cavs Begin Championship Quest by Facing Familiar Foe

The Cleveland Cavaliers will face the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs for the third time in four years. In 2006 and 2007, the Pistons enjoyed home court advantage and were widely considered to be the clear favorites based on their postseason experience, though the Cavs extended them to seven games the first time and beat them in six games the following season. This year is of course a completely different story, as the Cavs own the best record in the entire league while the Pistons look like a team that might not have even made the playoffs if the season had lasted another week.

My newest CavsNews.com article previews this Eastern Conference first round playoff series and also looks back at the two previous playoff showdowns between Cleveland and Detroit (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ reward for finishing with the NBA’s best record (66-16) while shattering the previous franchise record for wins in a season (57) is a first round matchup with the dysfunctional Detroit Pistons. Cleveland and Detroit squared off in a pair of memorable playoff series in 2006 and 2007 but the two franchises have zoomed in opposite directions recently; the Cavaliers remade a substantial portion of their roster—capped off with the acquisition of All-Star guard Mo Williams—while the Pistons fired their coach, traded away All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups, fought through injury and chemistry issues and limped into the postseason with a 39-43 record, including a 12-19 mark since the All-Star break.

No one inside or outside of the Detroit locker room seriously thinks that the Pistons can beat the Cavaliers in this first round series. Truthfully, the most interesting thing about this matchup is whether or not the Cavaliers will be focused enough to sweep their overmatched opponent or if they will permit the Pistons to win a game in Detroit and prolong the series to five games. However, while it is fine for outsiders to say such things, overconfidence can be a dangerous thing in the locker room and the Cavaliers would certainly be wise not to “skip steps” either in their preparation or in the way that they play during this series.

That said, it is difficult to come up with objective factors favoring the Pistons in this matchup, which is a marked contrast to the situation when these teams faced each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2006. At that time, the Pistons owned the best record in the league (64-18) and had just made back to back appearances in the NBA Finals, winning a championship in 2004. The Cavs had just qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the LeBron James era and they earned the right to play Detroit by beating the Wizards in six games in the first round. Most people did not give the Cavs much of a chance versus Detroit but after falling behind 2-0 the Cavs took a 3-2 lead in the series before squandering an excellent opportunity to win game six at home. Game sevens on the road are death for most teams—young teams in particular—and the Cavs proved to be no exception, losing 79-61. Even though Detroit advanced, that series proved not only that James could carry a team in the playoffs but that Coach Mike Brown’s defense-first philosophy would pay dividends in the long run, particularly as the team gained more experience.

In 2007, Detroit only won three more regular season games than Cleveland but many national observers did not believe that the Cavs were quite ready for prime time; James was criticized for supposedly not having a killer instinct and Coach Brown was not accorded sufficient respect for his coaching acumen. I did not buy all of that hype and went against the “experts” by correctly predicting a Cleveland victory.

Even when the Pistons were at—or at least near—the height of their powers in 2006 and 2007, they did not play quite the stifling defense that the 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics used to contain James and thus defeat the Cavs in the playoffs; the Pistons had great trouble keeping James out of the paint and he thus shot a much better field goal percentage against them (.449 in the 2007 playoffs, .442 in the 2006 playoffs) than he did versus the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals (.356) or the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals (.355). Since James could go wherever he wanted to on the court versus the Pistons, he turned the ball over less frequently versus them than he did against the Spurs and Celtics, teams that sagged off of James not only to keep him out of the paint but also to disrupt his ability to pass the ball.

What does this trip down memory lane have to do with this year’s playoff series? The point is that even when the Pistons were a legitimate contender they never had much success guarding James—and this year’s Pistons are not nearly as good defensively (or offensively) as the 2006 and 2007 versions were, while the Cavs clearly have a much more talented and deeper roster than they did back then. The Pistons still have a fine midrange shooter (Richard Hamilton), a good wing defender (Tayshaun Prince) and their rotation of bigs—including Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell—can do some damage but overall the Pistons do not match up well with the Cavs, who won three of the four regular season meetings. Detroit’s lone victory against Cleveland came all the way back on November 19 and the since banished Allen Iverson played a prominent role, scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting; that was during a stretch when Detroit won four out of five games--including victories over the Cavs and Lakers—by featuring Iverson and Rasheed Wallace in screen/roll actions that were very tough to defend: give Iverson space and he would jet to the hoop but give Wallace space and he would drain three pointers (3-6 from long range versus Cleveland in that game). Fortunately for the Cavs, the Pistons inexplicably abandoned the idea of using Iverson effectively, tried to turn him into a sixth man and later asked him to stay away from the team for the rest of the season. With Iverson out of the picture, young guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum have to shoulder heavy responsibilities, though Prince or Hamilton can also assume some playmaking duties.

The Cavs have been a dominant home team all season, so it would be shocking if the Pistons win game one or game two at the Q. When the series shifts to Detroit it will be very interesting to see what the Cavs’ collective attitude is: will they be happy to get a split and then try to close out the series at home or will they get a sweep that could provide some valuable rest before the second round begins? I expect the games in Detroit to be hard fought but in close contests down the stretch the deciding factor will be that LeBron James and Mo Williams handle the ball and make plays for the Cavs, while the Pistons depend on Stuckey and Bynum, both of whom tend to make poor decisions in critical moments, which is a big reason why the Pistons have blown so many leads this season.

I expect the Cavs to sweep Detroit but game three and possibly even game four could very well be decided by last minute or even last second plays.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 PM


NBA Leaderboard, Part VIII (final edition)

The Lakers went 2-0 versus the Celtics, 2-0 versus the Cavaliers and 2-1 versus the Spurs but still failed to reach their goal of securing home court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs. The Lakers posted their most victories since 2000--when they won the first of three straight titles--but if they do not capture the crown this year due to losing game seven on the road in the Finals then they will surely rue their 0-2 record versus the Charlotte Bobcats and the come from ahead home defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers on March 17, the setback that gave the Cavaliers the lead for good in the race for the best overall record.

Best Five Records

1) Cleveland Cavaliers, 66-16
2) L.A. Lakers, 65-17
3) Boston Celtics, 62-20
4) Orlando Magic, 59-23
5-7) Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, 54-28

This is the first time in NBA history that two teams won at least 65 games in the same season.
Only 13 other NBA teams have ever won at least 65 games and 11 of those teams won championships, the two exceptions being the 68-14 Boston Celtics in 1972-73, who fell in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek injured his shoulder, and the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, who shockingly lost in the first round to Golden State. Obviously, after this season at least one more 65-plus win team will unhappily join the Celtics and Mavericks on that short list.

I get the sense that people do not really fully comprehend that we are watching some of the most dominant regular season teams in NBA history, particularly when you consider that if Kevin Garnett had been healthier the defending champion Celtics likely would have also won at least 65 games and may have made a run at 70--do you remember that the Celtics opened the season with a 27-2 mark, including a 19 game winning streak that was ended by the powerful Lakers in Los Angeles? The Celtics are led by three future Hall of Famers, while the Lakers and Cavaliers are each led by a player who could very well ultimately be considered one of the top 15 players of all-time. This has been a very special, historic season both in terms of team accomplishments and in terms of the MVP level play of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, not to mention the return of Dwyane Wade to elite status plus the continuing excellence of Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

The Spurs struggled with injuries to key players all season long; the loss of Manu Ginobili for the playoffs is a crippling blow to their championship hopes. The Nuggets and Trail Blazers are definitely surprise members of the top five (even if it took a three-way tie for them to join that group); if San Antonio, New Orleans, Utah and Dallas--not too mention Phoenix--had enjoyed better health then I seriously doubt that Denver and Portland would be sitting where they are perched right now but they still deserve credit for taking care of business when the opportunity presented itself to move up in the standings compared to where they finished last season. It is worth noting that while the Trail Blazers actually won 13 more games this season than they did in 2008, the Nuggets only added four wins to last year's total; they essentially ran in place or increased their pace ever so slightly but they jumped ahead in the standings because several other teams markedly declined. That said, seeds two through eight in the West are only separated by six games, so there should be some very intriguing and hard fought first round matchups.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 30.2 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 28.4 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 26.8 ppg
4) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.9 ppg
5) Danny Granger, IND 25.8 ppg
6) Kevin Durant, OKC 25.3 ppg
7) Chris Paul, NOR 22.8 ppg
8) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 22.8 ppg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.7 ppg
10) Brandon Roy, POR 22.6 ppg

18) Dwight Howard, ORL 20.6 ppg
19) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.5 ppg

24) Tim Duncan, SAS 19.3 ppg

26) Pau Gasol, LAL 18.9 ppg

28) O.J. Mayo, MEM 18.5 ppg

30) Ray Allen, BOS 18.2 ppg

Dwyane Wade captured his first scoring title by averaging a career-high 30.2 ppg, beating out LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, the players who combined to win the previous three scoring crowns. Dirk Nowitzki finished fourth by posting his best scoring average since 2005-06, the year that he led the Mavericks to the NBA Finals. Danny Granger, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul each achieved the highest scoring averages of their young careers, while Carmelo Anthony's scoring output dipped to its lowest level since 2004-05, his second season; Anthony has been widely praised for his supposedly improved play this season but the reality is that his field goal percentage plummeted to .443 from .492 in 2008 and his rebounding declined from 7.4 rpg to 6.8 rpg, though that can be partially explained by a slight reduction in his mpg average.

O.J. Mayo got off to a fast start and then performed steadily worse for most of the season but he bounced back a bit in April and finished with the highest scoring average among rookies.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 13.8 rpg
2) Troy Murphy, IND 11.8 rpg
3) David Lee, NYK 11.7 rpg
4) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
5) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.1 rpg
6) Chris Bosh, TOR 10.0 rpg
7) Yao Ming, HOU 9.9 rpg
8) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.6 rpg
9) Kevin Love, MIN 9.1 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 8.9 rpg

16) Shaquille O'Neal, PHX 8.4 rpg
17) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.4 rpg

19) Lamar Odom, LAL 8.2 rpg

27) LeBron James, CLE 7.6 rpg

43) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.2 rpg

Dwight Howard won his second consecutive rebounding title and seems to be well on his way to matching or surpassing Kevin Garnett's run of four straight rebounding titles from 2004-07. The best streak prior to that was Dennis Rodman's seven straight rebounding crowns from 1992-98, which is the all-time record (Moses Malone once led the league five years in a row, while Wilt Chamberlain won a record 11 rebounding titles but--thanks to Bill Russell--never captured more than four in a row). Troy Murphy--sort of a modern day Bill Laimbeer who shoots from the outside but is fully capable of banging on the boards as well--finished a distant second behind Howard, narrowly beating out David Lee.

Kevin McHale was mocked for trading O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love but Love cracked the top ten on the rebounding leaderboard as a rookie, a most impressive feat.

Despite struggling with injuries at times, Tim Duncan moved up to fourth place by the end of the season.

Jason Kidd led all point guards (and every shooting guard except Mike Miller) in rebounding, which is remarkable considering that he is 36 years old and has come back from microfracture surgery.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.0 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.7 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 9.7 apg
4) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.9 apg
5) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.7 apg
6) Rajon Rondo, BOS 8.2 apg
7) Baron Davis, LAC 7.7 apg
8) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.5 apg
9) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 apg
10) Chris Duhon, NYK 7.2 apg

I definitely believe that Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA but in light of my ongoing research into how assists are tracked I am not sure that I believe that he actually led the NBA in assists but the official record book will forever state that in 2009 he won his second straight assists crown. Steve Nash led the league for three straight years prior to Paul's ascension and Jason Kidd took five assist titles in six seasons (interrupted only by Andre Miller) between 1999 and 2004. I am all for encouraging players to pass the ball and be unselfish but until the league does a better job of setting some kind of consistent standard regarding what an assist actually is this category will be by far the most subjective and least meaningful of the "big three" per game statistics; the above list likely names 10 of the best passers in the NBA but it is doubtful that it ranks the top 10 passers in the correct order, though in Paul's defense I would say that he is probably the best passer in the league even if an objective count would show that he did not rack up more legitimate assists than Deron Williams or Steve Nash or Jose Calderon.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:02 AM


Monday, April 13, 2009

Julius Erving Holds Court after Hall of Fame Press Conference

During Julius Erving's playing career, it was well documented that he patiently and articulately answered questions until the last reporter left the locker room. He has that same patience, grace and smooth way with words to this day, as he showed after the Basketball Hall of Fame press conference on Friday February 13; long after every other Hall of Famer and Hall of Fame finalist had left the room, Erving continued to hold court with reporters until that group dwindled from a large crowd to just a single writer. It was a real treat to listen to him talk about a number of different subjects. Here are some highlights from his remarks, beginning with a few questions that I asked him and concluding with his responses to selected questions from various other reporters (the questions have been edited to exclude irrelevant or repetitive information):

Friedman: "Julius, what are your earliest memories of Red Kerr with the Virginia Squires?"

Erving: "Well, I'm saddened to see that Red is in ill health right now (Kerr passed away shortly after All-Star Weekend). When I came out of college, he was one of the first people I met who was involved with the pro game. My first year in Virginia, he was our general manager. He did a great job in terms of explaining the pro game and citing the differences between college basketball and pro basketball, being an amateur and being a professional. He was a guy who had been there (as an NBA player in the 1950s and 1960s). As Jerry Colangelo mentioned, he is a lifer, someone who has devoted his whole life to the sport that he loves and the game that allowed him to have a great lifestyle. He's had a huge impact and I think that he will continue to have a huge impact. I hope that he can recover to the point that he can go back to work and be a happy individual. My prayers go out to him and those memories are something that I will never forget."

Friedman: "Is there a particular thing that he said, perhaps about the difference between being a pro and being an amateur, that really has stuck with you or is it just the general tenor of his advice?"

Erving: "I think that it's more the general tenor. He used to always say, 'Be a professional.' Any time that I saw him he always gave me a big greeting and it was genuine affection because he got me when I was 21. Now guys come into the league at 17, 18--well, 19 is the cutoff now--and Tony Parker started playing pro ball (in Europe) at 15, so you can just imagine being one of the first handful of people to have an influence on an amateur turning professional and he was in that handful of people with (Virginia Coach) Al Bianchi and (team owner) Earl Foreman."

Friedman: "You have mentioned that you don't watch the game so much anymore. Has that been a gradual process for you since you retired from playing? When did you really step back and stop following the game on a day to day basis? You were in management (with Orlando) at one point."

Erving: "Yeah, from 1997 to 2003 I was in management. I found that when I went back in 1997 one of the more difficult things to do was to totally reacquaint myself with the league. I really tried to do it but I had so many other interests. My whole scope had broadened as a person and my tastes and preferences were different. I couldn't have the same type of commitment that I had during those 16 years when I played. I mean, I ate, drank and slept it. I wasn't Pete Rose (who is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball past and present) during those years but I still knew my profession--I knew every coach and general manager and the people in the front offices and every player and the trainer on every team. I tried to get back to that over a six year period with Orlando and I could never get there. Now, I am really far away from it. I don't even know if I could name the starting five--I'm probably worse than Barkley when it comes to naming starting fives, because I know that he doesn't know (laughs) and he gets prepped! As you get older, it's not as important to you."

It is interesting to contrast Erving's attitude toward the NBA and how he has adjusted to his status as a retired player with the sentiments that Michael Jordan expressed at his Hall of Fame press conference. Although Erving says that he does not follow the NBA on a day to day basis, he is perhaps being a bit modest because his comments reveal that he not only knows the history of the game but also has a pretty good grasp on what is going on in the league now, particularly in terms of the elite players and teams. When Erving speaks about Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and "passing the torch" you can be sure that he is remembering when he "passed the torch" to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; Erving understands the nature of that process--from both sides--better than just about anyone else but while Jordan clearly feels a combination of wistfulness and defiance about no longer being the NBA's top player, retirement seems to suit Erving just fine: he has repeatedly demonstrated how adept he is at making smooth transitions, going from college to the pros, from the ABA to the NBA and then going from being the best player in the world to being an All-Star to being an elder statesman and then to being a retired legend.


Q: At one time there was a big gap between the NBA and FIBA basketball. What has happened to narrow that gap?

Erving: "The game has changed. It has evolved. It is more of a wide open game. It is a game of matchups. It's like a jigsaw puzzle but now when you have big guys going outside and shooting three pointers and you've got little guys who can go in and slam dunk you are kind of flipping the script. With the evolution of the sport and the flipping the script it has also opened doors for experimentation and teams are willing to do that. I think if we go back to the teams that first included the international players, Vlade (Divac) coming over and doing a great job with the Lakers and (Drazen Petrovic) with the Nets--those guys coming in and doing a great job opened the door for the rest of the world and that's how the gap has closed. I'm sure that probably 30% of the NBA players now were born outside of the United States."

Q: What do you remember about Drazen Petrovic?

Erving: "An impact player, whose tenure with us was all too short. Toni Kukoc would be another guy who had an impact, a champion with the Bulls. Once the floodgates opened, there is no turning back and that has definitely occurred."

Q: What did you listen to to pump yourself up before games?

Erving: "My favorite was Grover Washington, Jr., because he was a friend and because he composed a song for me surrounding basketball with 'Let it Flow' but Marvin Gaye and Earth, Wind and Fire--you know, certain games were a Marvin Gaye mode, on the road, kind of tired, you need to be a little laid back, you need to listen to 'Let's Get it On.' In other games, playing Boston or New York, Earth, Wind and Fire was the way to go--'Shining star, no matter who you are.'"

Q: What is your take on Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James?

Erving: "I think that what you have is a torch bearing situation. Kobe has the torch and he is destined to pass it on to LeBron. Right now, I think Kobe has it."

Q: What separates Kobe from LeBron?

Erving: "The years of experience, the fact that there is no substitute for that. In terms of his individual ability, he does things in a little bit more of a traditional sense to get it done. LeBron is kind of like a bull in a china shop. He is a fantastic talent. I don't think he knows how good he is. Looking at him coming full speed at 270 pounds, that is like Shaq playing point guard. It's like, 'All you little boys need to move out of my way.' But, the combination of offense and defense, finesse and power, Kobe is the package--and I think that LeBron would probably admit that. Well, maybe because of their egos neither one would admit anything! But, that is part of it, don't give anybody any quarter or do anything that will put you at a disadvantage. Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line."

Q: Michael Jordan used to complain that people imitate how he played but forget about the fundamentals. Has there been a decline in the fundamentals in favor of highlight reel plays in the wake of Michael Jordan's retirement?

Erving: "Michael continues to be an extraordinary individual away from basketball and when he was playing he reached the highest of highs as a champion, as a spokesman, as an ambassador for the game. The fundamentals were clearly displayed every time he got on the court, very much like Kobe Bryant today excels at both ends of the court and makes declarations; he's like, 'OK, who's the toughest guy out here? I want to play against him. That's my matchup, that's the guy I'm playing tonight. Let's go mano-a-mano.' So, in a team sport when you have that type of individual confidence and you bring that type of intensity and tenacity, fans are drawn to that because it's a showdown. There is sort of a gladiator syndrome. That has always existed in the league. There is a lot of pressure for an individual to take all of the weight. As the league has gotten bigger, the economics have gotten bigger, from a few hundred million (dollars) back in the 1980s to a few billion (dollars) now. Clearly, you take the responsibility away from an individual and it is better to handle it collectively. So now you have a cluster of guys who are the new Michael Jordans. Each generation produces its icon and this generation clearly has one. Shaq just did a little walk through up here and you can't discount the Shaquille O'Neal era. Even though we are nearing the end of that--his best is behind him--he's still here. Tim Duncan is here; he has not gone anywhere. These are guys who deserve their due. I don't look at any extended downtime or down cycle having occurred (in the NBA), unless, I was just asleep at the wheel and removed from the game at that time. I'm not watching the game every day. I got other things to do" (chuckles).

Q: Is there one highlight from your career that sticks out in your mind?

Erving: "My first game was great. I didn't know what was going to happen. The Virginia Squires were playing the Carolina Cougars (Virginia won 118-114 on October 15, 1971; the game was played in Greensboro, N.C.). You might say, 'Who were they?' but that was my first professional basketball game. I was kind of a hot shot collegian, All-American, signed a pro contract after my junior year, played in the summer league and was a hit on all levels during the summer league. Now it's time for my first pro game and I'm sitting back there thinking 'This is when it really counts. This is when my career starts, on this particular day in 1971.' I didn't know what was going to happen but I was very confident that I could rebound the ball because I had been a great rebounder in college. So I just said to myself that every rebound that came off was going to be mine. I had 22 rebounds in my first game and ended up scoring 21 points. I don't remember any of the points but I remember every rebound, because that was what was on my mind. I knew that if I established myself as a rebounder then I could stay on the court. The coach was not going to take me out. So I was the board man that night and at the end of that season my average was 15 (15.7 rpg), (third in the ABA) behind Artis Gilmore, who was 7-2 (and second place finisher Mel Daniels; Erving ranked first in total offensive rebounds and second in total rebounds, trailing only Gilmore in that category). That year, that season and that first game stand out.

Then, of course, the last game (of the NBA Finals) against the Lakers in '83, when we completed the sweep of Los Angeles, and in the last game I had a series in the fourth quarter when I scored seven straight points and we secured our lead and we knew that we were going to win the game after that happened. On the last play, my point guard is coming down and I'm running on the wing--and he always passed me the ball, 10 out of 10 times Maurice Cheeks passed me the ball and the other players said to him 'You have a Dr. J eye, you always find Doc'--and he came down and I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and he went in and dunked the ball. It was the first time that I had seen him dunk after playing with him for all of those seasons. All I could do was stand there and be flabbergasted. Those are two memories that are pretty nice."

Q: What was your reaction when they gave you the nickname "Doc"?

Erving: "I have had that nickname since high school. It was a matter of reciprocity. My friend called me the 'Doctor' and I called him the 'Professor' (Erving explained years ago in a Greatest Sports Legends interview with Ken Howard that his friend used to argue every call so much that 'his arguments turned into lectures by the time they reached my ears, so I started calling him the 'Professor'). We were just high school chums who went to college together. Now we both live in Atlanta, Georgia, so I still see him, so this is something that has lasted for a lifetime."

Q: Magic Johnson told me that when he was trying to decide whether or not to leave school early, he called you for advice. He said that you hosted him at your house for a few days--

Erving: "I had him come to Philadelphia and he spent a day and a half with me, went to our basketball game and we had a long talk. During that time, as during my time when I came out after my junior year, underclassmen going into the pros was very much an individual situation, one that you can't make a choice for other people as a group but in terms of an individual he was doing it the right way He was trying to get different individual opinions, assessing his personal situation and abilities and confidence and his family situation, how it was going to impact his family's life and his basketball history; I told him about when I signed as a junior I was forgoing the opportunity to be an Olympian in 1972. Of course, that team went and lost in Munich, so I'm not going to say I'm taking responsibility for that but if I had been there it might have been a little different (chuckles). You just never know. The individual choices that you have to make always affect your life and sometimes they affect other people's lives and sometimes adversely--just leaving school, think about your teammates and the coach who recruited you, they are counting on you but they have to move on and make individual choices for themselves just like they made the choice to go to that institution and you to have to always focus on the present and the future more so than the past but it doesn't mean that you won't be sensitive to the fact that others are affected by your decision. And he (Magic Johnson) never has, he has never forgotten about his school; he goes back and they love him. I don't know if he has gotten his degree yet but the next time I see him--which will be this afternoon at the game--that will be the first thing that I say to him: 'Did you get your degree yet?'"

Q: He said that one of the things that you told him is that this is not a boys' game, that the season lasts for 82 games--not 27 games--and you better be ready because you think that you are not going to hit the wall but we all hit the wall. Do you remember that part of the conversation?

Erving: "Yeah. I had been a veteran for a few years by that time; I was already an eight year veteran when he came into the league."

Q: "Did he and Greg Kelser stay at your house?"

Erving: "Yeah, they came to Philadelphia and stayed at my house. Greg was a senior, so he was coming out no matter what."

Q: If you were in the Slam Dunk Contest now, what would you do to top what the other players are doing?

Erving: "What comes after the (Superman) tights and the cape? I think that the more that the Slam Dunk Contest resembles the actions of the mascots the more that the crowd loves it. So, it seems to be about playing to the crowd, so I guess if I were 26 and in the Slam Dunk Contest I would do something to play to the crowd but I think that it is a little unfair that the slam dunkers, as talented as they are, have to resort to that to get favor from the judges or from the crowd. I am a little bit of a purist in that regard. I'd rather see no props allowed--or maybe a teammate, because I think playing against opposition brings out the best dunks. I think that my best dunks were when somebody was trying to block my shot. So if you want to put props in terms of resistance, that's one thing, but chairs and ladders and trampolines and all of that have turned it into too much of a sideshow. From a purist's standpoint--and I'm not a player hater or anything, I'm just old school--bring the juice and show me what you've got but do away with the props.

If you go back to the ABA (Slam Dunk Contest), the whole idea of dunking from the foul line came straight from the playgrounds. I did clinics for Converse and all around the world and I would finish my clinics by dunking from the foul line. Well, it used to be from behind the foul line, then it was from on the foul line and now it's well in front of the foul line (chuckles). That was a definitive moment. It's always a big deal if someone can pull that one off and truly plant behind the foul line and soar and score and not end up with any broken bones."

Q: What do you think of Reggie Miller in terms of making the Hall of Fame?

Erving: "I think he is going to be fine. Reggie stayed with one franchise his whole career. He was the man there, a consistent performer, took his team to the Finals. He was a fan favorite. Are there guys who had better careers? Sure, there were plenty, but I think Reggie has his credentials and had so many big games that as a talent as well as a contributor to the game of basketball he is Hall of Fame worthy."

Q: Looking at some of the young guys, could Greg Oden become a really dominant player in this league?

Erving: "Because of his physical stature, his personality and his intelligence he definitely could be. I think that the role that he is going to play with that team might not be as a dominant force. It might be more like Robert Parish with the old Boston Celtics. He has a good cast around him, so he might not have to be the one to do it every night--neutralize or win his matchup and they'll be fine."

Q: Do you think that people expect too much in terms of numbers--that if someone is the number one overall pick then he should be the leading scorer--and they don't look at winning enough?

Erving: "When you say 'people,' there are people who only know scoring and if you don't score they think that you are not a great player. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That is really not a knowledgeable basketball fan if he looks at it purely in terms of scoring."

Q: "What is your feeling about the best players not taking part in the Slam Dunk Contest?"

Erving: "It's not something that a guy has to do year in and year out. Kobe has been there and done that. So, you try it on for size. I don't even know what the nomination process is right now. I don't think that it is a matter of guys raising their hands and saying, 'I'm in,' although if LeBron wanted to do it I'm sure they'd let him in. Usually the guy who is coming to All-Star Weekend for the first time wants to do everything and take in everything but the guys who are established stars understand that there is a risk associated with trying to do too much--you could get hurt. Also, they want to get in some social time; they bring their family and friends and they want to hang loose."

Q: Do you think that the way that the game has changed has made it more difficult for referees to do their jobs? What is your general feeling about the 70s, 80s, 90s and this generation? Do you think that their job is any harder than it was?

Erving: "Fundamentally, no. I don't think so. I think that the multiple rules changes over the years have made it different. I just could not fathom guarding a guy like this (mimics a current NBA player's defensive stance); I was always taught palms up, arms out--that is how you guard people. Now you have to guard people with your arm in, which affects your balance, and you can use a forearm but you can't use your hands. Maybe I'm just too old (chuckles). Some of the rules changes probably have made it more difficult to officiate--whether a zone is allowed or not and so forth. They have more to think about but this is a well paying profession and those guys need to do their homework. You can be an official until you are 65 or 70, so you can make a full life out of being an official, so I think that every official should strive to be the best and understand the craft and execute in terms of doing their job. I don't think that officiating is rocket science by any means, so let's not make it more confusing than it is or than it looks from the outside. The idea is to keep the flow of play going, let the fans enjoy the show, let the players do what they do and as a referee the unfair advantage rule is a big one and the other stuff is fundamental: if a guy travels, call a travel. A lot of stuff that gets talked about makes it sound a lot more complex--they just don't have any home games; it's life on the road--82 road games (chuckles)."

Q: You mentioned flow of the game but isn't part of the reason that traveling became such a popular mode of transportation in the NBA that the league did not want to break the flow of the game?

Erving: "I think that the rule is just like policing the difference between a moving violation and a violation. One carries a greater degree of penalty but they are still both violations. When you say this is a judgment call versus something that is cut and dried on camera then you are allowing human judgment to be put into the mix. You might have a guy making a play and let's say I travel but the reason I travel is because this guy pushed me. I go in and score the basket. The push is a foul, the travel is a travel and the basket is a basket. So, a no-whistle actually works better than a whistle in that situation. If you call a foul, you stop the action and there is no travel; if you call the travel, I'm (upset) that you didn't call the foul and you took away the basket. So, the no call is a judgment by the official and it happens all the time."

Q: What do you think of the young stars in the league? It seems that for the first time in a long time that people are happy with the young stars, the way that they are playing and the way that they are representing themselves.

Erving: "You are right on point. There is something on the paper or on TV about LeBron everyday. Kobe or Wade a little less but clearly they are the three brightest stars in the league. The Celtics are the new kids on the block; it is theirs to win again. They have had some hiccups along the way but everyone is trying to match the standard that they set. The Lakers are doing their part. I'm not even watching it every day but I walk by newstands and LeBron is everywhere. He is not carrying the torch because I think Kobe is still carrying it but LeBron is next in line. Kobe is not going to give it up on a whim. It's like, 'You've got to come and get this.' So, that's kind of nice. You've got a great rivalry. You've got an East-West rivalry. You've got parity between the conferences--before, the East (was terrible) and the West was great and now you look at the teams in the East and their records and their performances against the West and you've got parity again. Hallelujah. David (Stern) has got to be happy. I'm happy and I don't even watch it every week but I have a sense of it and I care about it and I think that you are right about the brightest stars being citizens as well as performers and owning up to responsibility and being driven to challenge the standards from before. Before, I think that there was a little bit of denial--it was like nothing had happened before. Everything is new. 'It's our turn,' that kind of attitude, that type of swagger. Guys are like, 'Don't you know that you are not the first one to do that?' (chuckles) Because you had underclassmen or even high school players leading the charge, they really weren't aware; they were just too young and they hadn't been sensitized and they didn't know the history of the game. Even Shaquille did not know the history of the game and he was leading the charge for real, winning championships. So, now I think that you have more awareness and guys who are more savvy in terms of going online, blogging, that whole thing; they are either doing it individually--Gilbert (Arenas) has been great with that, as you know--or their friends are sharing it with them. They are learning that they are part of something that started a long time ago and that they have an obligation to try to make it better. The ones who are undertaking that challenge can make it better in some places. They are never going to totally rework it but it's not about perfection, it's about having the right attitude and putting forth the effort, and I see the effort with these guys--especially Team USA last year. I saw those guys work out a few times. They went to work. They went to work. Everybody who was a part of that really understands and they have taken that back to their teams. Chris Paul, just to add a little bit about him in there: he is an unsung hero. He is as a good a player as there is in the league. Other guys get a lot more play. I'd hate to see him lost in the shuffle and I don't think that he will be."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 PM