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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Walt Frazier: The Embodiment of Seventies Style

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Hoop

Clyde and the Pearl

Walt Frazier was the soul and the spirit of the New York Knicks in the early 1970s—unflappable, unselfish, versatile and smooth, he embodied the essence of what made those teams special. In game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, Willis Reed famously overcame a painful leg injury and nailed his first two shots, inspiring his teammates—but Frazier provided impact, producing 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds in the Knicks’ 113-99 victory over the Chamberlain-West-Baylor L.A. Lakers.

When Frazier entered the NBA in 1967 few would have predicted that he would have such an epic Finals performance en route to a Hall of Fame career. Frazier’s solid numbers (9.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.1 apg) earned him a spot on the All-Rookie Team but he did not take the league by storm. Meanwhile, Baltimore Bullets guard Earl Monroe became an instant star, averaging 24.3 ppg and winning the Rookie of the Year award.

The next season kicked off one of the great rivalries in sports history, marking the first of six straight times that the Knicks met the Bullets in the playoffs. These showdowns featured dueling Hall of Famers at several positions—Reed confronted Wes Unseld in the pivot, Dave DeBusschere wrestled with Gus Johnson at power forward and Frazier tried to contain the wondrous Monroe in the backcourt.

Frazier describes the intensity of the DeBusschere-Johnson matchup: “Dave was a tenacious player, a good rebounder and defender who could also shoot the ball well from the perimeter. I remember vividly those matchups with Gus Johnson, another powerful man--he had an Adonis body, powerfully built. They used to go to war. They asked no quarter and they gave no quarter. After the game I always remember that DeBusschere was sitting over in the corner resting because he had given it all that he had. Most of the time he came out on top. Gus was a very flamboyant player, one of the first ones to break a backboard with his powerful dunks. Their whole team was flamboyant—we had a more stable team and we knew that defense was our catalyst. We knew that if we could stay close to a team we could pull it out down the stretch and most of the time we did.”

Asked who in today’s game plays power forward like DeBusschere or Johnson, Frazier replies, “They were Karl Malone types—dominant low post guys. There are very few of those guys around anymore. They had the omnipotence of a Karl Malone—very powerful inside, rebounding, versatile. I don’t think that they make too many like that anymore.”

While the DeBusschere-Johnson and Reed-Unseld battles often came down to strength and will, the Frazier-Monroe matchup featured contrasting styles--Frazier’s defensive skills and on-court cool versus Monroe’s offensive brilliance and flashy moves. Each player had a great nickname: Frazier was known as Clyde because his wardrobe brought to mind the styles featured in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, while Monroe was called Pearl ever since a newspaper article listed some of his high scoring games in college under the heading "Earl's Pearls."

The Frazier-Monroe rivalry blossomed during the first three playoff encounters between their teams. In 1969, Monroe scored 28.3 ppg versus New York in the playoffs but Frazier hounded him into .386 field goal shooting, a dramatic decline from the Pearl’s .440 accuracy in the regular season. New York swept the Bullets but lost to Boston in the Eastern Finals; the Celtics went on to capture their 11th title in 13 seasons to cap off Bill Russell’s final year.

Baltimore pushed New York to seven games in 1970. Monroe averaged 28.0 ppg, including a 39 point outburst in game one; New York pulled out a 120-117 double overtime win in that contest, keyed by several steals that Frazier made from Monroe down the stretch. Of course, that season culminated in the Knicks’ first championship, forever remembered for Reed’s aforementioned uplifting return to action for game seven after being unable to play in a lopsided game six loss.

The Bullets only won 42 games in 1971, but outlasted the Knicks 93-91 in game seven of the Eastern Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks swept the Bullets in the NBA Finals and only a few months after that the Frazier-Monroe rivalry came to a sudden and shocking end--New York acquired Monroe for Dave Stallworth and Mike Riordan. The pairing of two of the NBA’s top guards in the same backcourt did not immediately garner rave reviews on Broadway. Monroe was hobbled by a heel injury and Reed missed the entire postseason due to a knee problem. The Knicks returned to the NBA Finals, but fell 4-1 to the powerful 69-13 Lakers.

In 1972-73 the “Rolls-Royce” backcourt drove the Knicks to their second championship. Fully healthy and without Frazier hounding him on defense, Monroe shot .526 from the field in the playoffs and ranked second on the Knicks in playoff scoring (16.1 ppg), while Frazier led the team in playoff scoring (21.9 ppg) and assists (6.2 apg). More than 30 years later Frazier vividly recalls going to battle against—and then with—Monroe: “Earl was my biggest nemesis. I used to say, ‘Earl doesn’t know what he’s going to do, so how could I know?’ He was just very creative and would make up shots as he goes. But I loved defense and I relished the opportunity to try to stop him. Playing with him was also very exciting. I think that we were the best backcourt ever. People thought that we wouldn’t be able to play together, that we would need two basketballs, but we proved them wrong because we won a championship together.” Frazier and Monroe were teammates with the Knicks for nearly six full seasons. Monroe actually finished his career in New York, while Frazier spent his last three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.


“Clyde could strip a car while it’s going 40 miles an hour.”—Bill Hosket, reserve forward-center on the Knicks’ 1970 championship team

Frazier authored an all-around game matched by very few guards in pro basketball history, but his impact was particularly felt on the defensive end of the court. During the Knicks’ glory years in the 1970s fans rocked Madison Square Garden with the rhythmic chant “Dee-Fense!” and Frazier often responded with a key steal followed by a timely hoop. He made the All-Defensive First Team in 1969, the first year the NBA selected such a squad, and earned that distinction in each of the next six seasons; among guards only Michael Jordan and Gary Payton have more All-Defensive First Team selections than Frazier. It is unfortunate that the NBA did not officially keep track of steals until 1973-74, Frazier’s seventh season. Frazier ranked eighth that year with 2.01 spg and placed second in 1974-75 with 2.44 spg, but players often have their best seasons in this category early in their careers. We will never have official documentation of how many steals Frazier had during the Knicks’ championship seasons (this also applies to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who retired before blocked shots became an officially recorded statistic).

Frazier’s defensive philosophy emphasized quality over quantity in terms of steals. He says, “Everyone has a cadence, a rhythm. Like in life there is a rhythm. The motion of the ocean has a rhythm. So normally if you were right handed, I’d force you to the left. That way I could reach around you. Most of the time a guy is vulnerable going to his weak side and he does not protect the ball like he should. So there is an opening there. During the course of a game I would set a guy up for that. He’s been comfortable with that particular move the entire game and now I go for the steal when it will have an impact on the outcome of the game.” Like a cheetah hiding until just the right moment, Frazier did not pounce until he knew that he could snare his prey.

Frazier notes that defense has changed in the NBA since the 1970s: “The biggest difference is that you can no longer put your hands on guys. When we played you could put your hands on guys and literally push and shove them around. They took that out and it’s much easier today because of that. My biggest adjustment to the NBA as a rookie was adjusting to having someone always pushing me and having their hands on me. That was like carrying an extra five to ten pounds around. The defense then was more physical. With pick and roll plays (then) you had to be very physical to get over the pick. They have actually taken that type of tenacity away from the defense today. You can no longer hand check and do the things that we used to do, especially in the playoffs. That was like Kung Fu fighting; it was just war—very aggressive defense and they let us play that way.”

Frazier says that the hand check was not an important tool in his defensive arsenal: “Most of the guys used it. Almost everybody did it. I didn’t do it because I used deception on defense. I didn’t like guys to know where I was so I never put my hands on them.”

There is a lot of emphasis today on advanced scouting and video preparation for specific opponents, but Frazier did not rely very much on those things during his career and is skeptical of their importance: “I had the focus in my head. If you mention a guy, I could tell you what he was going to do: Oscar Robertson is going to try to take you down low; Jerry West is going to stop and pop; Earl the Pearl is going to shake and bake. Everyone who I guarded I knew what they were going to do. The coach did not have to tell me; I knew. The coach might emphasize certain things that a player likes to do, but from your experience in the league you know what everybody likes to do. (The importance of) scouting is exaggerated. Everyone knows what you are running and they know the names of your plays and everything. It’s all about execution.”

Thriving in Life’s Transition Game

An athlete’s adjustment to life after playing professional sports is often difficult psychologically and financially. Any problems in these areas may be compounded by physical ailments resulting from years of wear and tear. However, several of the players from the Knicks’ championship teams have done well in their post-playing careers—most famously, Bill Bradley became a U.S. Senator and Phil Jackson won nine championships as an NBA coach. Frazier has thrived in life’s transition game. He has several successful businesses, including a bed-and-breakfast in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. In 1996, he founded the Walt Frazier Youth Foundation to help high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds obtain internships and job opportunities. Frazier even co-wrote a book with Alex Sachare, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Basketball.

Frazier provided color commentary on WFAN 660’s radio broadcasts of Knicks games from 1989-1998 before joining MSG Network as a color commentator for the 1998-99 season. He has worked there ever since, dispensing insights with uniquely melodious diction and colorful adjectives. Frazier would never be satisfied using pedestrian words such as good or bad to describe the action on the court—it is either scintillating and sensational or deplorable and disastrous. Frazier studies the dictionary and thesaurus like he used to study opposing players and spices his comments with rhymes and alliteration the way he used to stuff boxscores with points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Business, broadcasting and philanthropy—Frazier is as well rounded in his current endeavors as he was during his Hall of Fame playing career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:39 AM


Friday, June 19, 2009

Slam Top 50 is a Typically Sloppy Production

Someone who is affiliated with Slam/Slam Online recently emailed me and very cordially asked me to explain why I have made derogatory references to Slam/Slam Online. I responded by citing several specific examples that demonstrate what I call the "amateur hour" quality of a lot of the work being published at both places; this is a theme that I initially explored in December 2007 and although I hoped that editorial staff changes at the magazine and the website would result in improvements that has not been the case.

Consider the "New and Improved Slam 2009 Top 50," a feature story--consisting of Slam's ranking of the NBA's 50 all-time greatest players plus thumbnail articles about each player--that appears in the issue of Slam cover dated August 2009. Making such a list is a difficult and somewhat subjective task but Slam's rankings are not terribly off base; Shaquille O'Neal is too high (fourth) and Julius Erving is too low (15th) but Slam's rankings for Kobe Bryant (12th) and Scottie Pippen (27th) are solid and the overall list is not bad. However, for such a list to have credibility it has to be made by people who know basketball history and possess above average writing skills. Otherwise, even if most of the rankings are unobjectionable the final product still comes across as something out of "amateur hour."

It is more than a little distracting to read player rankings that contain factual errors. The Bill Russell thumbnail article declares that Russell "led the L in rpg" four times. Of course, "the L" did not rank statistical leaders by per game averages until the 1969-70 season, one year after Russell retired. Russell led the NBA in total rebounds four times and posted the highest rpg average five times--it is not clear whether the Slam writer meant to indicate how many times Russell officially led the league in rebounding or how many times Russell had the top rpg average but saying that Russell "led the L in rpg" four times is vague at best.

The Larry Bird thumbnail declares "You don't average 6.3 apg and 1.7 spg as a forward but Larry did." LeBron James is the only forward who has a higher career apg average than Bird, but Julius Erving, Scottie Pippen and Shawn Marion are three forwards who averaged more than 1.7 spg during their careers--and you can add George McGinnis to that list if you include McGinnis' ABA numbers.

In certain situations it may be considered stylish to use slang words or write in sentence fragments to achieve a particular effect but basic rules of grammar should not simply be flouted for no reason; it is one thing for a songwriter to use poetic license to make lyrics rhyme and/or to sound more colloquial but one should be much more judicious about such things when writing an article for publication, let alone an article that is part of a purportedly serious listing of the 50 greatest NBA players of all-time. Yet, the thumbnail article about Erving begins, "If it wasn't for Dr. J, there is no Slam." Of course, this should read, "If it weren't for Dr. J, there is no Slam." The rest of the piece is written in the passive voice ("Wilt Chamberlain...was dunking" instead of "Wilt Chamberlain dunked", "What Erving did was turn the dunk into an offensive weapon" instead of "Erving turned the dunk into an offensive weapon," etc.). The author has a solid, if not exceptional, understanding of Erving's impact--though Erving's otherworldly performance in the 1976 ABA Finals should have been mentioned--but any literate person reading the piece cannot help but notice the many obvious ways that the writing could have been sharper; the article reads like a first draft at best, not a final draft for publication. The writer deserves blame in that regard but the person who is primarily responsible for what appears in print is the editor; a solid editor would never let such writing see the light of day.

The Patrick Ewing thumbnail asserts that Ewing "was the League's first true warrior." Ewing was certainly a great player but that statement is so vague that it is meaningless. Was Ewing a greater "warrior" than Chuck Cooper, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton and Earl Lloyd, the players who helped to break the league's color barrier? Was Ewing a greater "warrior" than Elgin Baylor, who played the second half of his career sans knee cartilage? Was Ewing a greater "warrior" than Maurice Lucas, the prototype enforcer? Saying that Ewing "was the League's first true warrior" is intellectual laziness; instead of spouting a cliche, the author should have cited a specific example of why Ewing should be lauded for his "warrior" qualities.

One author declares that Gary Payton "intimidated 95 percent of the guards in the League." That sounds superficially authoritative but what does it really mean? Were players afraid to fight Payton or were they afraid of being outplayed by him? There is no doubt that some guards may have been intimidated by Payton but you do not last long in professional sports by being timid or soft, so that "95 percent" number seems more than a bit high. Payton was a better player than 95 percent of the guards in the NBA but that does not mean that all of the lesser players were "intimidated" by him. Kobe Bryant is obviously a much better player than guys like Raja Bell, Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier but it would be disrespectful to say that those three strong defenders are "intimidated" by Bryant.

The Dave Cowens thumbnail praises Cowens for being the "most unique" Celtic in the Top 50 list, citing Cowens' mid-season retirement during the middle of his career (he soon returned to the league) and the offseason that he spent as a taxicab driver as "a testament to his greatness." I could make a strong argument that Bill Russell was the "most unique" Celtic in the Top 50 list: Russell revolutionized pivot play--and the sport itself--with his emphasis on blocking shots and rebounding. I am completely baffled by the suggestion that retiring and/or driving a taxicab have anything to do with being a great basketball player. It is much more relevant and meaningful to note that Cowens was an undersized but extremely mobile center who successfully battled against taller and heavier opponents.

One Slam writer says that George Gervin "is the only guy to be teammates of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan." First, for Gervin to be "teammates" he would have to be two people; the writer meant to say that Gervin "is the only guy who played with both Julius Erving and Michael Jordan" (note that this sentence is not in the passive voice and does not confuse the singular with the plural; a good editor could have very quickly fixed the original writer's mess). Second, the writer is wrong: Steve Colter, Earl Cureton, Caldwell Jones, Wes Matthews and Sedale Threatt all played with both Erving and Jordan. In fact, Colter played with Erving and Jordan in the same season (1986-87, Erving's final campaign) and started games for both the 76ers and Bulls that year. I knew this information without even looking it up because I am a student of NBA history; I don't expect everyone to have encyclopedic knowledge of the sport but if you do not know the subject matter then you should do thorough research before writing or editing an article.

I will not waste my time going into every example of slipshod writing/poor editing found in the "New and Improved Slam 2009 Top 50" but suffice it to say that the examples cited above were not the only subpar articles; it should also be noted that a few of the articles, including the one by Konate Primus about Kobe Bryant, are above average in quality.

Slam is hardly the only lackluster magazine; the overall quality of contemporary professional sportswriting is shockingly bad, as I lamented a few months ago in a post about Rick Reilly, one of the few people left in the business whose fastball still hums.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:28 AM


Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Greatest Scoring Machines in Pro Basketball History

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the January 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

When discussing the greatest scorers in pro basketball history it is only natural to look at career scoring average. Once a player scores 10,000 points or participates in 400 regular season games he is eligible to be ranked among the career points per game leaders. The list of career ppg leaders often combines retired veterans with active players in the prime of their careers. For example, from 1973 until 1975 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranked first in career ppg. After Abdul-Jabbar averaged 27.7 ppg in the 1975-76 season the retired Wilt Chamberlain "passed" Abdul-Jabbar and remained on top until Michael Jordan came along. Is it really meaningful to compare Kareem's scoring average after his first few seasons with Wilt's scoring average from a 14 year career? This is not meant to criticize the 10,000 point/400 game standard—some type of minimal requirements are necessary and these numbers are reasonable. The point is that evaluating the greatest scorers based solely on career scoring average can lead to an "apples/oranges" comparison of one player's best seasons with another player’s finished body of work.

It is much more informative to broaden the discussion to include other relevant statistics. The accompanying chart compares 18 of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history at various stages of their careers. This article will focus primarily on three of these players: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.

At the start of the 2001-2002 season, Wilt Chamberlain is third on the career scoring list (31,419 points) and second in career scoring average (30.1 ppg), but he holds numerous scoring records that will simply never be broken and will likely never even be approached. Wilt's 100 point game on March 2, 1962 is one of the most famous records in all of sports. Even more impressively, Wilt averaged 50.4 ppg in the 1961-62 season. No one else has ever averaged even 40 ppg—except for Wilt, who scored 44.8 ppg in 1962-63. Wilt also had a 78 point game, two 73 point games, a 72 point game and a 70 point game; no other player in history has multiple 70 point games (David Thompson’s 73 points on April 9, 1978 are the best non-Wilt total). Wilt's 32 60-plus point games, 118 50-plus point games and 271 40-plus point games are all records; second place totals are four 60-plus point games (Jordan*), 30 50-plus point games (Jordan) and 165 40-plus point games (Jordan).

In his first five seasons Wilt scored 16,303 points in 391 games—41.7 ppg, a figure that likely will never be equaled in a single season, let alone a five year stretch. Wilt won scoring titles in each of his first seven seasons, never averaging less than 30 ppg, and his 21,486 points (39.6 ppg) were the highest total in NBA history at that time. From his eighth season on, Chamberlain voluntarily reduced his scoring for the betterment of his teams (his previous coaches had encouraged him to score as much as possible); he won one assists crown and his teams captured two league titles in this phase of his career. After ten seasons Wilt still had a 34.4 ppg average. Even Michael Jordan averaged more than 34.4 ppg in a season only twice, so a ten year run of 34.4 ppg is not going to be surpassed any time soon.

In his first autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, Wilt notes that when critics would suggest that he was not the scorer or player that he had been earlier he would respond by posting a few high scoring games, just to show that he could still do so at will. He lit up the Cincinnati Royals for 58 points on February 13, 1967 and scored 68, 47 and 53 points in three consecutive games in December 1967; Wilt's team won all four games. In January 1969, Wilt notched a 60 point game and he had a 41 point game in January 1971. He was not shooting wildly from all angles, either; Wilt led the NBA in field goal percentage a record nine times (Shaquille O'Neal is next with five**). Wilt is clearly the most unstoppable scoring machine in pro basketball history.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the career scoring record with 38,387 points. As indicated above, after his first five seasons Kareem temporarily wrested the career ppg title from Wilt by scoring 12,262 points in 402 games (30.5 ppg). After his seventh season Kareem maintained a 30.0 ppg average (16,486 points in 549 games) and at the ten year mark he still boasted a robust 28.6 ppg average (22,141 points in 773 games). Kareem won two scoring titles early in his career and had four 30-plus ppg seasons. His career scoring average of 24.6 ppg does not rank in the top ten all-time and reflects the fact that he played until age 42, failing to average 20 ppg in his last three seasons. It is worth noting that Kareem averaged 22.0 ppg at age 38 in 1984-85, making Second Team All-NBA and winning Finals MVP honors; the next year he scored 23.4 ppg and made First Team All-NBA. Kareem’s legacy is his longevity and his unstoppable "skyhook," which was the ultimate weapon in pro basketball for many years.

Michael Jordan’s "third coming" raises three interesting questions: (1) Will Jordan maintain the highest career scoring average? (2) Can Jordan pass Kareem and become the career scoring leader? (3) Would he have passed Kareem if he hadn’t retired twice previously? If Jordan plays all 82 games this season and next, he needs to average a little over 22 ppg to stay ahead of Wilt for highest career scoring average. Entering the 2001-2002 season, Jordan trailed Kareem by 9110 points; if his comeback lasts two seasons, he would have to score 55.5 ppg to pass Kareem. If Jordan decides to play as long as Kareem did, he could pass Kareem by averaging 27.8 ppg for four years. Jordan's two retirements caused him to miss 82 games in 1993-94, 65 games the next season and 214 games the past three seasons. If he had played in all of those contests he would have needed to average 25.2 ppg to break Kareem's record. It is impossible to say if the extra mileage would have worn him down, but it seems safe to suggest that he probably would have passed Kareem by now.

Whether or not Jordan passes Kareem in total points or slips behind Wilt in career scoring average, he will be remembered for what he did in his peak years. Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg in his first five seasons (11,263 points in 345 games) and was still at 32.6 ppg after seven seasons (16,596 points in 509 games). He only dipped slightly to 32.2 ppg after 10 seasons (21,998 points in 684 games, including an 18 game season in 1985-86 due to a broken foot and a 17 game season in 1994-95 after his first comeback). Jordan has bested Chamberlain in two areas: 30-plus ppg seasons (eight to seven) and scoring titles (ten to seven).

Jordan will likely join Kareem, Wilt, Karl Malone and Julius Erving in the elite 30,000 point club this season. Karl Malone averaged 24.9 ppg in his first five seasons and increased his career ppg to 25.9 by the end of his seventh season. After ten seasons Malone was at 26.0 ppg and his 16 year career average entering the 2001-2002 season is 25.9 ppg. He averaged 29.0 ppg during his best five year stretch (1987-88 until 1991-92) but his trademark is durability and consistency. He has one 30-plus ppg season and no scoring titles. If Malone plays through 2003-2004, he will need to average a little over 22 ppg to pass Kareem on the career scoring list.

Julius Erving and Jordan are the only "mid-size" players of these five. Dr. J averaged 28.7 ppg in his first five seasons, all in the ABA. He won three scoring titles, once topping 30 ppg. His career average stood at 26.6 ppg after seven seasons and 26.1 ppg after ten. He finished his career with 30,026 points in 1243 games (24.2 ppg). Erving reduced his scoring in his first two NBA seasons (21.6 ppg in 1976-77 and 20.6 ppg in 1977-78) as the Philadelphia 76ers spread the ball around to other scorers such as George McGinnis, Doug Collins and World B. Free. After Billy Cunningham replaced Gene Shue as 76ers coach in 1977-78, Cunningham noted that the 76ers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians." McGinnis and Free were traded away the next year and from 1978-79 through 1981-82, Cunningham focused the offense around Dr. J, who averaged 24.7 ppg and led the Sixers to three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and two NBA Finals appearances during this period. In 1982-83 the Sixers acquired Moses Malone; that season Erving and Malone both scored less than they had in the previous season, but the Sixers won the NBA title.

Several of the great scoring machines sacrificed individual numbers in order to help their teams challenge for championships by becoming more balanced offensively: Wilt, Dr. J, Moses Malone, Oscar Robertson, Adrian Dantley—but no one exemplifies this more than Bob McAdoo, a three time scoring champion who became a sixth man for the Showtime Lakers and played on their 1981-82 and 1984-85 championship teams.

Interestingly, others continued to score at or near their best numbers while their teams battled for titles: Kareem, Karl Malone, Jordan, Rick Barry, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Bob Pettit and Shaquille O’Neal. Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin and Alex English never played in the NBA or ABA Finals.

* Kobe Bryant has since passed Jordan by scoring 60-plus points in five regular season games.

** O'Neal has since passed Chamberlain by winning a total of 10 field goal percentage titles.

6/18/09 Note: Jordan's second comeback lasted for two seasons. He finished third on the career scoring list with 32,292 points and remained narrowly in front of Chamberlain on the career ppg average list, 30.12 to 30.07. Karl Malone finished with 36,298 points and a 25.0 ppg career scoring average. Shaquille O'Neal has moved up to seventh on the NBA/ABA career scoring list (he ranks fifth on the NBA list). I have reproduced the chart below as I submitted it to Basketball Digest for the January 2002 issue--omitting for formatting purposes one column of "miscellaneous notes" about each player--because the data for the players at various stages of their careers is still valid and interesting, even though the career rankings have changed slightly as indicated earlier in this note.

Top Six NBA/ABA Scorers

Career Totals PPG/1st 5 Years PPG/1st 7 Years PPG/1st 10 Years
Player Points Games PPG
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387 1560 24.6 30.5 30 28.6
Karl Malone 32,919 1273 25.9 24.9 25.9 26
Wilt Chamberlain 31,419 1045 30.1 41.7 39.6 34.4
Julius Erving 30,026 1243 24.2 28.7 26.6 26.1
Moses Malone 29,580 1455 20.3 18.4 21.1 22.7
Michael Jordan 29,277 930 31.5 32.6 32.6 32.2

Selected Others

Oscar Robertson 26,710 1040 25.7 30.3 30.4 29.3
Dominique Wilkins 26,668 1074 24.8 25.1 26 26.2
George Gervin 26,595 1060 25.1 22.2 24.1 26.2
Alex English 25,613 1193 21.5 14.8 18.4 21.4
Rick Barry 25,279 1020 24.8 30.3 29.1 27.9
Jerry West 25,192 932 27 26.9 27.8 27.9
Adrian Dantley 23,177 955 24.3 23.8 25.2 26.5
Elgin Baylor 23,149 846 27.4 32 30.2 28.1
Larry Bird 21,791 897 24.3 22.6 23.9 25
Bob Pettit 20,880 792 26.4 24.9 25.5 26.6
Bob McAdoo 18,787 852 22.1 28 27.4 25.3
Shaquille O’Neal 16,812 608 27.7 27 27.1 NA

* Statistics reflect career totals prior to the start of the 2001-2002 season.

* Players listed in order of total career points.

* The players with the 6 highest point totals in NBA/ABA history are listed first; the "Selected Others" category includes several Hall of Famers, former scoring champions and players with high ppg averages.

* Statistics for Erving, M. Malone, Gervin & Barry include ABA seasons.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Big Diesel is Getting Smaller and Smaller

Shaquille O'Neal will always be a towering figure in basketball history but in the past few years he has become a little smaller. Kobe Bryant refuted O'Neal's profane, classless rap by leading the Lakers to the 2009 championship with a Finals MVP performance, proving that he could indeed "do without" Shaq. Meanwhile, O'Neal presided over one of the most precipitous collapses by a championship team in NBA history, as the Miami Heat plunged from the heights of the 2006 title to a first round playoff loss in 2007 and the worst record in the NBA in 2008. Midway through the 2008 disaster, O'Neal went through an escape hatch to Phoenix but the Suns promptly exited in the first round and then failed to even qualify for the playoffs in 2009. Far from proving that Bryant cannot "do" without him, O'Neal is in fact showing that he cannot "do" without a lot of help. Anfernee Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade were the "closers" on the various O'Neal teams that made it to the Finals, because down the stretch of a game O'Neal can neither create his own shot nor can he be depended upon to consistently make free throws.

As O'Neal's status has slipped, he has regrettably taken shots not only at Bryant but also at his former coach Stan Van Gundy (calling him a "master of panic"), the best center in the NBA today (Dwight Howard) and all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who O'Neal ridiculed in the same rap in which he blasted Bryant. Abdul-Jabbar wisely responded, "The gratuitous insult? I considered the source and I slept very well that night." Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22.0 ppg and shot .599 from the field for a championship team at the age of 38, making the All-NBA Second Team and winning the Finals MVP in 1985; O'Neal is highly unlikely to post those numbers or have that impact two years from now when he reaches that age.

In their classic book Wait Till Next Year, William Goldman and Mike Lupica covered a wide range of topics through the prism of one year (1987) in New York sports. A subchapter by Goldman titled "To the Death" (pp. 277-281) is a tremendous piece of sportswriting that beautifully describes how the accomplishments of most athletes inevitably are blurred by the passing of time and the emergence of younger athletes. Goldman explained that Michael Jordan's epic 1987 performance (37.1 ppg) highlighted how Wilt Chamberlain stands in defiance of that trend because "Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century." Goldman cited the example of career 60 point games: "Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." Indeed, Goldman wrote those words more than 20 years ago and the "rest of the NBA" has yet to match Chamberlain in that category: he still leads, 32-28, despite the combined efforts of Kobe Bryant (five) and Michael Jordan (four).

While Chamberlain has more than stood the test of time, O'Neal's petty comments and the dramatic decline in his game after the age of 30--an indictment of his failure to consistently stay in top condition, a lack of dedication that is the real reason that he and Bryant clashed, regardless of the nonsense that the Shaq-loving media spewed--only serve to diminish his status, particularly when viewed in contrast with Bryant, who has continued to be an elite level player even as he passed the age of 30 and his "odometer" approached the 35,000 mark in terms of career regular season minutes played.

Remember all of the garbage that was written about Bryant supposedly driving O'Neal out of L.A. and how the Lakers were wrong to choose to build around Bryant? Do you think that anyone in the Lakers' organization regrets the O'Neal trade now? I always said that the only fair way to evaluate that deal was to look at it in the short term for Miami but in the long term for the Lakers. Anyone who suggested that the 2006 Miami championship vindicated O'Neal or reflected poorly on the Lakers is an idiot; when the Lakers traded O'Neal they fully realized that the Heat would be contenders in the short term but that it would take some time to assemble a viable supporting cast around Bryant. The Heat squeezed one title out of the Wade-O'Neal duo so the move was hardly a failure from their perspective but it will be interesting to see when/if the Heat will become a contender again. Meanwhile, the Lakers with Bryant never sank nearly as low as the Heat did with Wade sans O'Neal, Bryant has already exceeded what O'Neal accomplished in Miami and there is good reason to believe that the Lakers will be championship contenders for the next few years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cavs' 2009 Season Provided Reasons for Hope, Reasons for Concern

The Cleveland Cavaliers stormed to the NBA's best regular season record (66-16), seemed to be invulnerable at home (39-2, including a meaningless late season loss during which the majority of their key players did not play) and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, which is impressive and rare no matter what one thinks of the relative quality of the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. They seemed to be on course for a Finals showdown with the L.A. Lakers but then the Orlando Magic stunned the Cavs in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals and went on to eliminate Cleveland in six games.

Were the "real" Cavs the team that seemed unbeatable at times or were the "real" Cavs the team that fell to the Magic? In my newest CavsNews article, I attempt to answer that question, compare how Cleveland defended against Orlando with how the L.A. Lakers guarded Orlando in the NBA Finals and offer my take on whether the Cavs should acquire Shaquille O'Neal (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Cleveland Cavaliers produced the best regular season in franchise history in 2008-09 but the joy and excitement generated by a league-best 66-16 record were tempered by the 4-2 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Were the “real” Cavs the team that stormed through the regular season and easily swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs or were the “real” Cavs the team that squandered homecourt advantage in the first game of the Orlando series and never recovered from that setback?

In the wake of Cleveland’s loss to Orlando, there is a natural—though unfortunate—tendency to belittle everything that the Cavs accomplished prior to that series. It is important to remember that the Cavs ranked first in points allowed (91.4 ppg, nearly two ppg better than the second place San Antonio Spurs), first in scoring differential (8.9 ppg, 1.3 ppg better than the second place L.A. Lakers) and tied with the Boston Celtics for first in defensive field goal percentage (.431). The versatile and deep Cavs also ranked second in three point field goal percentage (.393), third in rebounding differential (3.3 rpg) and fifth in fewest turnovers per game (11.99). Over the grueling 82 game schedule the Cavs proved to be a well rounded team that does not have many weaknesses in the game’s fundamental areas (defense, shooting, rebounding, ballhandling).

Coach Mike Brown has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since the Cavs hired him and it is unfortunate that a trip to the NBA Finals, two Eastern Conference Finals berths, the 2009 Coach of the Year award and Cleveland’s emergence as one of the league’s best defensive teams have not completely silenced Brown’s detractors. Brown came to Cleveland with the goal of transforming the Cavs into a defensive-minded team much like the San Antonio Spurs, a franchise that won the 2003 championship when Brown was an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich—and the defensive statistics cited above show that the Cavs are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Just as significant as the numbers, though, is the undeniable fact that Brown’s superstar player LeBron James clearly buys into Brown’s defensive program and that therefore every player on the roster follows suit. Until the Orlando series, Coach Brown had never lost a playoff series that the Cavs were expected to win but he led the Cavs to one clear upset (over Detroit in 2007 en route to the NBA Finals) and forced the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in 2008 despite James setting records for poor field goal shooting in the first part of that series; that Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics proved just how good the Cavs can be defensively and showed that they are not simply a one man team.

What happened versus Orlando? There are three main reasons that the Cavs lost to the Magic:

1)    All-Star Mo Williams was markedly less efficient offensively than he had been in the regular season; his field goal percentage plummeted from .467 to .371. If I were running the Cavs the first thing that I would try to ascertain—by talking to the coaching staff and Williams himself and by watching game film—is what caused Williams’ productivity to slide so suddenly and so dramatically. Williams was brought in to be the team’s second offensive option and if he cannot fill that role at a championship level then the Cavs have to act accordingly but I would be wary of giving up on Williams after one bad playoff series.
2)    During the regular season the Cavs had 10 players who averaged at least 16.0 mpg and all 10 of those players were productive but only five Cavs averaged at least 16.0 mpg versus the Magic and only three of those players—LeBron James, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao—were consistently productive (relative to their roles/regular season output).
3)    The Cavs had numerous defensive breakdowns, primarily consisting of leaving three point shooters open and not making sure to foul Howard instead of letting him dunk.

In my Eastern Conference Finals preview I picked Cleveland to beat Orlando because I thought that the Cavs had the necessary frontcourt depth to single cover Dwight Howard for the most part, thus enabling Cleveland’s perimeter defenders to stay at home on Orlando’s brigade of three point shooters. I also expected that homecourt advantage would be significant for a Cleveland team that went 39-2 at Quicken Loans Arena during the regular season and I concurred with NBA analysts Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello, veteran NBA observers who noted that the Cavs have a deep roster filled with players who have been starters for playoff teams.

Ironically, in the NBA Finals the L.A. Lakers followed the prescription listed above to perfection and defeated the Magic in the manner that I had thought that the Cavs would: the Lakers held Howard to 15.4 ppg on .488 field goal shooting while also limiting the Magic to just 38-115 shooting (.330) from three point range and the Lakers set the tone for the series by pounding the Magic in game one in L.A. Although the middle three games of the series were highly competitive—which puts the lie to the fiction that Orlando only posed matchup problems for the Cavs but not for the Lakers—the Lakers claimed the championship with a dominant road win in game five. In contrast, as Cavs’ fans know all too well, Howard had a tremendous series versus Cleveland (25.8 ppg on .651 field goal shooting) and the Magic shot 62-152 (.408) from three point range.

Coach Brown elected to go with several crossmatches defensively, putting small forward LeBron James on point guard Rafer Alston, shooting guard Delonte West on small forward Hedo Turkoglu and point guard Mo Williams on shooting guard Courtney Lee. Although the Magic supposedly enjoyed matchup advantages at several positions, the Cavs consistently built double digit first half leads while using these crossmatches; if the Cavs had won the series, people would likely be praising Brown for his “innovative” defense! Instead, the Magic recovered from those deficits to make the games close down the stretch and then they hit big shots late in most of those games to prevail.

It has become fashionable to say that Cleveland simply matched up poorly with Orlando—some people (most notably Charles Barkley) made that point before the series and many others chimed in after Orlando won. However, that is oversimplifying things to the point of being deceptive; as Albert Einstein once said, “Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler.” Most contests between two good NBA teams involves various matchup problems for both sides. It is true that guarding Dwight Howard in the paint can be challenging and that the Magic surround Howard with three point shooters much like the mid-1990’s Magic did with Shaquille O’Neal and the mid-1990’s Rockets did with Hakeem Olajuwon--but the Cavaliers also presented matchup problems for the Magic, most notably LeBron James, who lit up the Magic with one of the greatest individual playoff series in NBA history; the biggest single mismatch in the series turned out to be James versus the Magic, as he averaged 38.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg in the Eastern Conference Finals.

When the Cavs led Orlando 63-48 at halftime of game one as James set a franchise playoff record with 26 first half points it hardly looked like Orlando’s matchup advantages mattered very much. However, although James finished with a playoff career-high 49 points, the Magic rallied to post a 107-106 victory. The story of that game turned out to be that James received very little offensive help from a supporting cast that had made significant contributions throughout the season. Mo Williams shot poorly (6-19 from the field) and no one else picked up the slack. Despite the subpar shooting, though, the Cavs led 106-104 with :25.6 remaining but they inexplicably allowed Rashard Lewis to take an uncontested three pointer that proved to be the game-winning shot. Game one winners go on to win the series roughly 80% of the time, so in a very real sense the Cavs were playing from behind for the rest of the series. Anderson Varejao not closing out on Lewis on that critical late game play is just as big an error as Jameer Nelson giving Derek Fisher airspace in a similar situation in game four of the Finals.

So much has been said about the Cavs being smaller than the Magic at key positions but the 6-3 West almost exclusively guarded the 6-10 Turkoglu and held him to 17.2 ppg on .390 field goal shooting; Turkoglu averaged 18.0 ppg on .492 field goal shooting in the Finals versus the 6-8 Trevor Ariza. On the other hand, Rashard Lewis did hurt the Cavs much more (18.3 ppg on .493 field goal shooting) than he hurt the Lakers (17.4 ppg on .405 field goal shooting) but the bottom line is that in both series one of those guys shot well and one did not—it’s not like the Lakers shut down both players or the Cavs let both players run free. The difference is that the Lakers contained Howard offensively without having to commit so many extra defenders that their overall perimeter defense (not just against Turkoglu and Lewis but also the supporting cast) was compromised. The Lakers accomplished this primarily with Pau Gasol guarding Howard, as Andrew Bynum played fewer than 20 mpg and was constantly in foul trouble. Gasol is not bigger or stronger than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, though he obviously is more mobile. Gasol did a good job of making Howard catch the ball outside of the paint so that Howard could not simply turn and dunk. The Lakers did not trap Howard often on the catch but when Howard put the ball on the floor they had a guard or a forward “dig” at the ball, taking advantage of the fact that Howard is not a great passer when he is on the move (the same thing was true of Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan in the early stages of their careers). Most importantly, the Lakers all but eliminated dunking from Howard’s repertoire by fouling him virtually every time he was close enough to the hoop to throw one down; one of the biggest plays in the Finals happened near the end of regulation in game four, when Kobe Bryant fouled Howard and the Magic center missed both free throws, setting the stage for Fisher’s three pointer versus Nelson. In the Cleveland series, that play would likely have been a Howard dunk and possibly a three point play opportunity; indeed, if I had to pick one moment that turned Cleveland’s season around I would choose the opening stretch of overtime in game four versus Orlando when Howard repeatedly scored at point blank range without the Cavs making any attempt to foul him to prevent layups/dunks. That had nothing to do with “mismatches” but was simply a matter of the players on the court understanding the situation and making the right read. Howard did not have a dunk in game one of the NBA Finals and that was because the Lakers not only made him work for post position but whenever he got free they made sure to foul him.

There is speculation that the Cavs will try to acquire Shaquille O’Neal. While O’Neal is certainly a big body who can pose a potential challenge to Howard at both ends of the court, he is also a 37 year old who has a disturbing recent history of injury problems, though he was relatively healthy last season. O’Neal has never been fully committed to exerting himself at the defensive end of the court, particularly on pick and roll plays—a staple of Orlando’s offense. The Suns acquired O’Neal two seasons ago to match up with their big man nemesis, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, but while O’Neal helped the Suns to win a couple regular season games versus the Spurs when push came to shove in the 2008 playoffs the Spurs once again prevailed. O’Neal said that he would accept a lesser offensive role in order to facilitate Amare Stoudemire’s development but it did not take long for him to undermine new coach Terry Porter (who has since been fired) and not so subtly demand more touches. This year the Suns did not even make the playoffs. O’Neal’s tenures in Orlando, L.A. and Miami all ended acrimoniously and he seems to have worn out his welcome in Phoenix very quickly. Even if the Cavs can acquire O’Neal without giving up core players—the Suns are likely more interested in dumping salary than trying to obtain equal value for O’Neal—I am not convinced that this would be a good move; the Suns brought in O’Neal out of desperation because their championship window was rapidly closing and their Steve Nash-led nucleus had never even made it to the Finals but LeBron James has already been to the Finals once and his championship window is certainly much more wide open than Nash’s, meaning that it is less necessary for the Cavs to make high risk moves.

While the way that Cleveland’s season ended was disappointing, the Cavaliers as presently constituted are without question a championship caliber team—it would be foolish to say otherwise about a team that is talented enough to win 66 games, ranks at or near the top of the league in vital defensive categories and is led by the league’s MVP. That does not mean that the roster cannot be improved but it does mean that the front office should be very leery of making change for change’s sake. In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks made it to the Finals and then they went 67-15 the following year but after both of those campaigns did not result in a championship the team made several personnel changes and then switched coaches—and promptly descended from being an elite team to being just another playoff team, even though their superstar player, 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, is still performing at a high level. If the Cavs can add some size to their frontcourt and/or obtain a reliable 6-6 or 6-7 wing player then they should by all means do so but there certainly is nothing wrong with standing pat with a group that defends as well and wins as consistently as this Cleveland team does.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 PM


Kobe Bryant Literally Molded This Lakers' Team in his Hardworking Image

People often speak of someone "making his teammates better" but it is not clear what this actually means or how one would go about doing this in the first place. I have declared that instead of that vague phrase I prefer to say, "Great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well." However, an excellent article by Kevin Ding discusses how Bryant literally made his teammates better by coaching them and even sharing with them detailed workout programs/practice regimens. Ding's article is not about Bryant drawing double teams and creating shot opportunities, though Bryant obviously does that on a regular basis; Ding reports that Trevor Ariza traces his dramatic improvement as a three point shooter directly to Bryant giving him a specific summer shooting program that Ariza treasured so much that he compared it to the Bible. Ariza told Ding, "Getting that from him? Kind of cool, kind of cool. Because before I got here, you always hear how he's this certain type of person. And when I got here, you realize he's not what everybody says he is. I just got in the gym every day and worked. I used what he told me, used some things that he gave me to do. And I just worked." Ding rightly notes that although Bryant has evolved and grown as a leader that it is "simplistic to say this is about trusting teammates. What must happen is ensuring your teammates are trustworthy."

Regular 20 Second Timeout readers may recall that I reported a similar story about Bryant regarding Andrew Bynum in the wake of a Lakers victory over the Pacers. Prior to that game, Bryant schooled Bynum about Jermaine O'Neal's pet moves and Bynum responded by blocking two of O'Neal's shots:

Basketball Clinic: Kobe Mentors Bynum, Lakers School Pacers

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:55 AM


Monday, June 15, 2009

Maestro Bryant Orchestrates Lakers' Championship, Wins Finals MVP

"I don't have to hear that idiotic criticism anymore."--Kobe Bryant, the 2009 Finals MVP trophy by his side, at the press conference after game five of the NBA Finals

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 30 points, led the L.A. Lakers in assists (five), blocked shots (four, tied with Pau Gasol) and steals (two, tied with Trevor Ariza) while also grabbing six rebounds and committing just one turnover as the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86 to win the NBA Finals 4-1. Bryant earned Finals MVP honors after averaging 32.4 ppg, 7.4 apg and 5.6 rpg in the series; only Allen Iverson (35.6 ppg in 2001), Jerry West (33.8 ppg in 1965) and Shaquille O'Neal (33.0 ppg in 2001) averaged more points in a five game NBA Finals.

The Lakers won the championship one year after being bounced out of the Finals in six games by the Boston Celtics; don't underestimate the significance of a team having the mental toughness to pull that off, because the last time a Finals loser won the championship the next season was 1989, when the Detroit Pistons swept the Lakers after losing to them in seven games in 1988.

Lamar Odom contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds off of the bench after subpar performances in games three and four. Trevor Ariza added 15 points, five rebounds and two steals, while Pau Gasol had a very efficient stat line: 14 points, a game-high 15 rebounds and the aforementioned game-high tying four blocked shots. Game four hero Derek Fisher scored 13 points on 4-7 field goal shooting. Starting center Andrew Bynum played his usual limited minutes (16:54) but fired up 11 shots during that time, making just three of them. The Lakers' much vaunted depth was scarcely evident, particularly if you count Odom as a de facto starter (Odom played 31:43): only three other reserves played and they combined to score just four points.

Rashard Lewis led Orlando with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists but he shot just 6-19 from the field; the hero of the Cleveland series shot .405 from the field versus the Lakers, had just two good games out of five and shot 2-10 from the field in both game one and game four. Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston scored 12 points each. Dwight Howard, who punished Cleveland inside to the tune of 25.8 ppg on .651 field goal shooting--including a playoff career-high 40 points in the clinching game six--finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Magic shot 8-27 (.296) from three point range and even that number is inflated, because it includes some late three pointers that boosted their percentage but did not really threaten to alter the outcome of the game.

Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy mused earlier in the playoffs that most members of the media come to games with two preconceived storylines and that after a game is over they just run with whichever one fits. For instance, if a well-rested team is playing against a team that just finished a grueling seven games series then these writers have a "rust" storyline ready and a "rested" storyline ready and simply use the one that proves to be relevant. The storylines before game five for those kinds of writers most likely revolved around the Magic either being "resilient" (if they won) or "devastated by the game four overtime loss" (if the Lakers won). Reality is not so cut and dried. The Magic have long since proved their resiliency, so anyone who imagined that they would just meekly submit to the Lakers is not very intelligent. The Magic took a quick 15-6 lead and were ahead for most of the first quarter. Bynum shot 0-6 during Orlando's initial burst, prompting ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy to note, "Sometimes you're open for a reason." Even more worrisome for the Lakers than Bynum's bricklaying was that Bryant reinjured one of the damaged fingers on his shooting hand when Lewis stripped the ball from Bryant--but, as is almost always the case with Bryant, the injury quickly became a nonstory and he did not miss any game time or seem to be the least bit impaired (Bryant has not missed a game in more than two years despite logging heavy minutes and enduring a host of ailments, including two significant finger dislocations on his shooting hand). As iron man quarterback Brett Favre once said about injuries, they are simply a case of "mind over matter": "if you don't mind, they don't matter."

Bynum finally scored midway through the first quarter when he got an offensive rebound/putback. Van Gundy observed, "Here's another byproduct of the double teaming of Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard had to rotate out (leaving) the smaller Hedo Turkoglu on Andrew Bynum." This is a nuance of the game that many fans (and most "stat gurus") fail to understand; they look at Bynum's shooting percentage (when he is healthy) or the shooting percentages of Gasol and Odom and say that those guys should get more shots and Bryant should shoot less frequently--but the Laker bigs shoot so well precisely because Bryant creates easy shots for them but he cannot create 25 easy shots a game for each player. Meanwhile, Bryant's shooting percentage is dragged down by having to take shots at the end of the shot clock and in other scenarios when the offense has broken down. If Gasol, Odom or Bynum shot 20-25 times per game their shooting percentages would drop and the Lakers would not be as effective as they are with Bryant as the main scorer/facilitator and the other players in complementary roles.

Although the Magic clearly had the right mindset entering this game, the Lakers withstood the initial flurry and only trailed 28-26 by the end of the first quarter. Bryant's prowess as a closer is correctly respected and feared but in this series he also proved to be a good "opener," keeping the Lakers in contact in several first quarters when the Magic came out smoking and the other Lakers could not get much going; in this instance he had 11 points and one assist. Bryant rested for the first few minutes of the second quarter and the Lakers fell behind 34-28 before rallying to trim the margin to 34-31 just prior to his return. Then, Bryant almost immediately sparked the run that, essentially, decided the outcome of the game, registering three assists (all on three pointers) and nailing a jumper as the Lakers outscored the Magic 11-0 in 1:20, turning a 40-36 deficit into a 47-40 lead. Though the Magic obviously were still in contact, they did not seem to have quite the same spirit the rest of the way; after several rounds in the famous "Rope a Dope" fight, Muhammad Ali famously asked George Foreman if that was all he had and Foreman recalled thinking, "Yeah, that's about it" before Ali moved in for the kill. Something similar seemed to happen to Orlando in this game--not that the Lakers were intentionally using a "Rope a Dope" approach but rather that the Magic hit the Lakers with their best shot, the Lakers withstood the blow and then it seemed like the Magic grasped the disheartening reality of trailing 3-1 versus a team that has answers for everything that they do. The Lakers led 56-46 at halftime.

The Magic briefly got to within five early in the third quarter but then the Lakers went up 73-57 and were ahead by double digits the rest of the way. Odom hit back to back three pointers during that burst. One of those treys came after a double-teamed Bryant passed to Ariza, who swung the ball to Fisher, who kicked it to Odom in the left corner; Fisher got the assist but Bryant created the shot by drawing the double team.

Although the Lakers enjoyed a comfortable lead for most of the second half, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson did not take any chances with his inconsistent reserves and opted to give Bryant just 1:14 of rest at the tail end of the third quarter with the Lakers leading 74-59. Bryant returned at the start of the fourth quarter and then played the rest of the way, scoring nine points in the final stanza to make sure that the Magic did not pull off a comeback.

The relative lack of drama down the stretch gave Jeff Van Gundy and fellow commentator Mark Jackson plenty of time to wax poetic about Bryant. After Bryant hit a tough jumper, Jackson said, "I really don't think that people appreciate how great this guy is." When play by play announcer Mike Breen mentioned in passing how much better of a teammate Bryant has become in recent years, Van Gundy interjected, "I think it's overplayed how hard he was to play with. He plays hard, he works hard in practice; when he is single covered he takes a shot and when he is double covered he passes. I think that a lot of that (stuff) about him not being a good teammate had as much to do with the guys he played with."

Jackson added, "If you go out and compete the same way this guy competes in practice and in game situations he's not a problem to you because he is not talking to you when he demands that you raise your level of play."

Van Gundy concluded, "He will have problems with guys--and rightfully so, just like a coach would--who compete to a point but maybe not has hard as is necessary to win it all."

Over the years, I have caught some flak from uninformed hacks--some of whom write for prominent publications--for stating that Bryant is the league's best player because he has no skill set flaws; I don't say that as a fan but rather as someone who watches the sport with an educated eye--and I have talked to enough coaches, scouts and players to know that they are seeing exactly what I am seeing. As Mark Jackson said during the third quarter, "He has no flaws as a basketball player. People got upset with me for putting Kobe Bryant in the same discussion with Michael Jordan. At the end of the day, just look at this guy's body of work. Look at the great players and listen to the way that they acknowledge that he's the best. It's incredible." The disconnect between how some fans and self proclaimed experts perceive Bryant and the way that informed basketball people view Bryant reminds me of the disparate perspectives about Scottie Pippen: basketball purists understand just how great he was but casual observers act as if he was an innocent bystander to Michael Jordan's brilliance.

Julius Erving's words of wisdom after this year's Hall of Fame press conference proved to be prophetic when he answered a question about what separates Kobe Bryant and LeBron James: "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."

James was my choice for regular season MVP this year, narrowly edging out Bryant; though the national media selected James in a landslide, I concluded my article on the subject with these words: "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." During the 2009 playoffs, Bryant averaged 30.2 ppg, 5.5 apg and 5.3 rpg while shooting .457 from the field, .349 from three point range and .883 from the free throw line, mirroring the outstanding numbers that he posted in the 2008 playoffs: 30.1 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.7 rpg, .479, .302 and .809. Bryant led the NBA in total playoff points scored both years and had the highest playoff scoring average in 2008 (he ranked second to James' 35.3 ppg this year).

James certainly had a tremendous postseason but watching Bryant lead the Lakers to the title you could see the significance of some of the skill set advantages Bryant has over James--particularly the ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot: teams simply cannot ever concede that shot to Bryant and thus Bryant is very difficult to single cover in the 15-18 foot area, which opens scoring opportunities for all of his teammates. It is no accident or coincidence that Pau Gasol has played the most efficient ball of his career since joining the Lakers (see below for more on that subject) or that career journeymen like Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown suddenly become much more productive playing alongside Bryant: Bryant's teammates know that they are going to be wide open and, just as importantly, they know exactly when and where they will be open and they know that Bryant is a willing passer, so all they have to focus on is knocking down wide open shots.

In many ways, Bryant saved his best for last in the 2009 postseason; Jerry West is the only player to match or exceed Bryant's scoring and assists averages in the same NBA Finals. West won the NBA's first Finals MVP in 1969 after averaging 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in a seven game loss to the Boston Celtics; West remains the only player to ever win that award despite playing on the losing team.

It is fitting that Bryant joined West on the list of Finals MVP winners and that he is the first recipient of that award since it was officially named in honor of Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the league's history (11 championships in 13 seasons) who, ironically, never won the Finals MVP (West won the first Finals MVP during Russell's final NBA season); no rational person can exclude Bryant's name from the short list of the greatest players in the history of the sport. When I wrote my five part series about pro basketball's Pantheon I limited the discussion to retired players but in part five I mentioned four active players who have performed at a "Pantheon level": Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Interestingly, prior to game five, TNT/NBA TV commentator Kenny Smith said that a fourth championship for Bryant would cement Bryant's place on Smith's list of the top 10 NBA players of all-time (this is the order in which Smith mentioned the names, though it is not clear if this is the order in which he ranks these players): Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant. It is difficult to take anyone's name off of that list but it is also difficult to leave out guys like Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving.

Bryant's Finals MVP caps off an extraordinary season in a special career: last summer, Bryant's clutch fourth quarter scoring carried Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, in February he shared the All-Star MVP with Shaquille O'Neal and then Bryant finished second to James in regular season MVP voting after leading the Lakers to the best record in the West for the second year in a row. Only Willis Reed (1970), Michael Jordan (1996, 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) won the regular season MVP, the All-Star MVP and the Finals MVP in the same season, so Bryant's second place finish and two first place finishes in voting for those three awards in 2009 are impressive. Bryant is also on a very short and distinguished list of NBA players who have won at least four championships, one regular season MVP and one Finals MVP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

While this is Bryant's fourth NBA championship--not his first, despite what you might have heard--Lakers Coach Phil Jackson passed Red Auerbach by claiming his 10th NBA title and after the game he proudly wore a cap designed by his children and adorned with the Roman numeral "X." Jackson is renowned for his ability to make adjustments during playoff series and this year's playoffs provided more evidence of that, as the Lakers won two of the final three games in the Houston series and three of the final four games in the Denver series, including the last two. During this year's playoffs the Magic proved to be a team that provided a lot of matchup challenges but in game five the Lakers managed to simultaneously limit their three point shooters and hold Howard well below his usual scoring average, a most impressive defensive accomplishment that speaks both to Jackson's gameplanning and to how well his players executed what he designed. Of course, it helps to have a player like Bryant bringing those chalkboard designs to life while also exhorting his teammates to match his energy and effort even if they cannot match his skill: on one possession, Bryant very effectively double-teamed Howard on the left block and then sprinted all the way to the right corner to contest Lewis' three pointer and harass him into shooting an airball. Players know which players just talk about hard work and which players actually are willing to sacrifice, so when Bryant plays that hard on defense that attitude becomes contagious. As Van Gundy and Jackson noted during the telecast, Bryant's attitude and work ethic had precisely that kind of positive effect for Team USA, too.

While always giving Gasol the credit that he deserves for his well-rounded skill set, I have also insisted that Bryant has played a major role in bringing out the best in Gasol. Jerry West, who acquired Bryant for the Lakers and ran the Memphis franchise when Gasol was that team's number one option, recently said of Gasol, "His effort is certainly greater than it was in Memphis, I'll tell you that, and it's because Kobe Bryant has driven him to that point." Anyone who follows the NBA closely and understands the game realizes that even though the trade that brought Gasol to L.A. looks lopsided on the surface, the method to Memphis' "madness" is that the Grizzlies seriously doubted that Gasol could ever be the main performer on a championship caliber team; that is why they dumped his salary in exchange for young players and draft picks in order to basically hit the "reboot" button and start over. Gasol has found a perfect niche with the Lakers as the number two option; this is definitely not a case of the Lakers having two "alpha males," as Bryant rightly described the situation when he and Shaquille O'Neal were the two best players on three Lakers' championship teams from 2000-02: as Bryant said in his postgame press conference after game five, those teams were unique precisely because they had two "alpha males" instead of the more clearly defined hierarchy that typically exists on teams.

Although the middle three games of this series were close, the Lakers routed the Magic in L.A. in game one and then eliminated the Magic in Orlando with a decisive game five win. Not coincidentally, those were Bryant's two best games of the series, as he dropped 40-8-8 in the opener and 32-6-5 in the finale while only committing one turnover in each of those contests. A lot will be said in the coming days, weeks and months about how this performance will impact Bryant's legacy--and if it was not immediately obvious how foolish it was for John Krolik to suggest that Bryant's career would be defined by game seven versus Houston it certainly is glaringly apparent now; all of the excessive attention paid to Bryant's facial expressions was also silly: as West said, when it came time to win championships you did not see Michael Jordan laughing and giggling, either.

Perhaps Kevin Garnett, who had his own critics to answer after spending most of his career getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, put it best last year as he exulted just moments after his Boston Celtics won the championship over Bryant's Lakers: "What can you say now? What can you say now?"

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM