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Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson's Artistry Will Never be Matched or Forgotten

It would be so much simpler if legends did not have feet of clay. When the great chess champion Bobby Fischer passed away last year, I wrote about his "mixed legacy." Michael Jackson passed away on Thursday at just 50 years of age and I am sure that most people know both that he was a great singer/dancer and that he tarnished his good name with sordid conduct, including a repudiation of his natural appearance by repeatedly subjecting himself to plastic surgery until he had completely changed his face; you don't have to be a psychologist to understand that despite all of his boundless talent and tremendous success Jackson was a tormented soul. That torment does not diminish his artistry but rather adds poignancy to it, a poignancy that is compounded because he died so suddenly and at such a relatively young age.

This has been a bad month for 1970s icons. David Carradine, star of the TV series "Kung Fu," died recently in Thailand, while Farrah Fawcett--in many ways the face (and body)--of that decade passed away within hours of Jackson's death. Jackson started out so young that even though he was only 13 years older than I am his professional music career began before I was born. My earliest memories of Jackson stem from his 1979 "Off the Wall" album, particularly the songs "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You," which was officially released as a single on my eighth birthday. Just a few years later, Jackson became a pop culture phenomenon around the world with his "Thriller" album, a classic that produced seven top ten singles, including the title track. The video for the "Thriller" single transformed the whole music video genre and earned heavy rotation on MTV. I didn't have cable TV at the time but I saw the "Thriller" video for the first time in school; one of our teachers, Miss Allen, had videotaped it and she showed the video during class. I don't know how many people had cable TV in 1983 but I'm pretty sure that most people did not have VCRs--the school had only gotten them fairly recently--so that was a very exciting school day!

While Jackson was certainly a talented vocalist, he set himself apart with his charismatic and fluid dancing style. Michael Jackson's dancing was captivating and beautiful, intricately choreographed and yet seemingly spontaneous; the touchstone of genius is to make the difficult seem effortless. I've always wondered what it must feel like to move so gracefully, much like I have always wondered what it must feel like to be able to soar to the hoop and dunk like Julius Erving.

Two of Jackson's later videos--both from the 1991 "Dangerous" album--featured two of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Jackson teamed up with Michael Jordan to make "Jam":




Magic Johnson made a cameo appearance in "Remember the Time":

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 AM

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Shaquille O'Neal Trade Overshadows Draft

Several trades overshadowed Thursday's NBA Draft, with the biggest move--literally and figuratively--sending Shaquille O'Neal from Phoenix to Cleveland in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a conditional second round 2010 draft pick and cash.

It is fascinating that for years we have been told how much Steve Nash makes his teammates better, yet despite being surrounded by multiple All-Stars he has yet to take the team to the NBA Finals even once, while in the past two years Kobe Bryant led the L.A. Lakers to two Western Conference titles and one NBA championship while being paired with just one All-Star. The Suns have clearly acknowledged that Nash will never lead them to a championship, so now they are slashing costs as a prelude to completely rebuilding the team.

There is no question that the Cavs have upgraded themselves from a talent standpoint. O'Neal is not nearly the player he once was but he made the All-NBA Third Team last season--the same honor accorded to the Lakers' Pau Gasol and 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker--and O'Neal shared All-Star Game MVP honors with Kobe Bryant. The Cavs won an NBA-best 66 games last season and now have added O'Neal without giving up a core member of their rotation; Wallace ranked seventh on the team in regular season mpg (23.5) but only played in 56 regular season games, while Pavlovic ranked 10th on the team in regular season mpg (16.0) while playing in 66 regular season games--and both players had their minutes slashed in the playoffs (12.6 mpg for Wallace, 8.3 mpg for Pavlovic). The Cavs are clearly committed to trying to win a championship this season and believe that O'Neal will help them to match up with Orlando's All-NBA First Team center Dwight Howard, who dropped a playoff career-high 40 points on the Cavs as the Magic beat the Cavs in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. However, there are some risks and downsides associated with bringing O'Neal into the fold, as I noted in my season overview article about the Cavs:

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.


It is worth emphasizing that every time that O'Neal has left a team--Orlando Magic, L.A. Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns--the parting has been acrimonious to some degree and that two of those teams did not win championships to offset the turmoil wrought by O'Neal. Furthermore, the Cavs did not acquire the player who won three straight NBA Finals MVPs from 2000-02; O'Neal has won just one playoff game since the 2005-06 season. Although O'Neal has often spoken of being "the general" who simply follows the orders of the "president" (head coach), the truth is that the only coaches he really listened to or respected were Hall of Famers Phil Jackson and Pat Riley--and O'Neal has even taken public verbal shots at both of them. O'Neal did not pay much attention to his other coaches, including Brian Hill, Del Harris, Stan Van Gundy and Terry Porter. Cleveland's Mike Brown is an excellent coach, particularly at the defensive end of the court, and like Harris and Van Gundy he took a team to the Finals without O'Neal but will O'Neal truly respect Brown and do what Brown asks? If O'Neal does not fall in line, what effect will that have in the locker room?

Instead of trying to position the Cavs as a team that can contend for multiple titles, Danny Ferry has rolled the dice in an attempt to win the 2010 championship; whether or not the Cavs achieve that goal, they obviously will have to make significant retooling moves very soon as O'Neal gets older and then retires. Supposedly the O'Neal trade will influence LeBron James to stay in Cleveland when he becomes a free agent but that thinking could backfire in two different ways: (1) if the Cavs win a championship in 2010, James could figure that he has maximized what he can achieve in Cleveland and decide to seek greener pastures with a team that has a younger nucleus; (2) if the Cavs do not win a championship in 2010, James could similarly decide that he has a better chance to win a championship elsewhere. I think that the best way to keep James in the fold is to surround him with a team that can contend for years to come, instead of making the 2010 season a "championship or bust" year for the franchise; the Cavs should have tried to make their nucleus younger and more athletic instead of older. The Cavs must try to supplement the O'Neal trade by adding some youth/athleticism to the roster, not just to improve their prospects for the 2010 season but also with an eye to the future.

Although the O'Neal trade will understandably grab most of the headlines, Orlando--the reigning Eastern Conference champions--added an eight-time All-Star who is a lot closer to his prime than O'Neal is: Vince Carter averaged 20.8 ppg in 80 games last season for the Nets and, despite the negative reputation the media has tagged him with, he has played in at least 76 games each of the past five seasons and has averaged at least 20.6 ppg every year since 1999-00, his second NBA season. Carter--who Orlando acquired from the Nets with Ryan Anderson in exchange for Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie--provides the Magic with another player who can make three pointers but he also can create a shot for himself and others even better than Hedo Turkoglu, who has been Orlando's point forward in recent seasons. Even if the Magic ultimately do not re-sign Turkoglu they are in good shape, because Carter is clearly an upgrade over Turkoglu as both a scorer and playmaker, but if the Magic keep Turkoglu then they could be the first team to start five All-Star caliber players--Howard, Carter, Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson--since the Detroit Pistons had Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, a quintet that won the 2004 championship and made it to the 2005 NBA Finals.

It is just as well that all of this trade activity overshadowed the draft, because--as I explained last year around this time--I have never been a big "draftnik." I have always been much more interested in evaluating players once they actually make it to the league and play against NBA caliber competition. A few days ago, Jay Bilas made a very interesting point: NFL teams have the opportunity to look at their draft prospects for four years and they still frequently make mistakes, while NBA teams often only get to see a prospect during one year of college before they have do decide when/if to draft him. Figuring out how collegiate/foreign players will perform in the NBA is an inexact science at best, in no small part because these players play with and against players of wildly disparate skill sets; that makes it tough to know just how meaningful a player's statistics are.

One of the best things about last year's draft was that ESPN relegated Stephen A. Smith to the "kiddie table" instead of having him sitting next to the actual experts pretending that he knows what he is talking about in terms of analyzing the NBA game; this year, Smith did not participate in the telecast at all (ESPN did not renew his contract), with Mark Jones taking Smith's place at the "kiddie table" interviewing the draftees. Stuart Scott hosted the coverage and, despite his inexplicable insistence on dispensing obscure facts that have no meaning or relevance and his ill-fated attempts at humor, he did a solid job. Mark Jackson provided a former NBA player's perspective, Jeff Van Gundy offered insights as a former NBA coach, Jay Bilas lent his expertise as a former collegiate player who now works college games as a broadcaster, Dick Vitale made a few cameo appearances and Fran Fraschilla served as the resident expert on the international game.

Bilas is a knowledgeable analyst but one aspect of his commentaries distracted me; I lost track of how many times Bilas described a player as "super-athletic" but I find it difficult to believe that there are so many "super-athletic" players in the draft. By definition, there can only be a few people who are "super" at anything at any given point in time. LeBron James is "super-athletic." Dwyane Wade is "super-athletic." Josh Smith is "super-athletic." Kobe Bryant has a flawless skill set and is one of the best conditioned players in the league but I'm not even sure that he is "super-athletic" at this stage of his career. There just aren't that many "super-athletic" players, period. We'll see how many of the 2009 draftees truly turn out to be "super-athletic" once they start facing NBA competition on a night in, night out basis 82 times a season.

Vitale had the line of the night when he said that "Mr. Po" (potential) gets coaches fired. Vitale made a couple clip and save predictions: Stephen Curry will win the Rookie of the Year award and the Cavs will face the Spurs in the 2010 NBA Finals.

Fraschilla had a relatively light workload early in the evening, as only two international players were selected in the first 21 picks, Ricky Rubio (fifth, by Minnesota) and Brandon Jennings (10th, by Milwaukee)--and Jennings obviously is an American player who simply played in Europe for one season due to the NBA rule that prohibits players from jumping straight to the league from high school. Scott incorrectly said that Jennings "circumvented" the rule; in fact, Jennings simply followed its provisions, as opposed to finding a loophole or challenging the rule in court: the rule is specifically designed to enable NBA teams to observe a player for one year after high school, whether that player spends the year in college, the Developmental League or Europe, so Jennings did not "circumvent" anything.

Fraschilla called Rubio's court vision "Gretzky-like" and said that Rubio is "one of the best passers I've ever seen." Fraschilla added that Rubio must get stronger and improve his shot. It is a bit unfortunate for Rubio that he bears such a strong physical resemblance to Pete Maravich, because it will be extremely difficult for Rubio to ever become even close to being as great a player as Maravich was; if Rubio did not look so much like Maravich perhaps people would be able to more objectively look at his skills. I have no idea how good of an NBA player he will become but I do not think that his basketball impact will approximate what Gretzky did in the NHL, nor do I think that Rubio is even close to being as good as Maravich was at a comparable age. Maravich set collegiate scoring records that will never be broken and his passing skills were at least a decade ahead of his time; Maravich was derided as a "hot dog" for doing the things that Magic Johnson later popularized as "Showtime." Rubio is certainly a gifted passer but he is not a decade ahead of his time; he is simply imitating moves that Maravich, Magic, Isiah Thomas and others perfected decades ago. I expect Rubio to struggle for at least one year and maybe two before he gets acclimated enough to the NBA game for it even to be possible to ascertain if he can truly become a great player.

For a while, Minnesota seemed intent on cornering the market on point guards--and small ones at that. Then they made some trades but after the dust settled they still had both Rubio and Jonny Flynn, who they took with the sixth overall pick. Minnesota's new GM David Kahn insists that Rubio and Flynn can play together but that seems improbable at best; Rubio is listed at 6-5, 180, while Flynn is listed at 6-1, 196, but Rubio may be lighter than that and Flynn is almost certainly shorter, so that is just not going to cut it for a starting backcourt in the NBA. I believe in giving GMs the benefit of the doubt but I have no idea what Minnesota's real plan is; offhand, this looks a lot like the Detroit Lions stockpiling wide receivers while the rest of their roster went to pot but maybe Kahn has some more moves up his sleeve. Of course, one of those moves has to be hiring a coach--Kahn let Kevin McHale go, even though McHale was very popular with the players and was a good tutor for big men Al Jefferson and Kevin Love--and it will be interesting to see how many coaches line up to take the job with Rubio and Flynn as the prospective starting guards. Bilas said that he considered Minnesota to be one of the winners of the draft, an opinion that right now may only be shared by Kahn.

Mark Jackson listed two winners--the L.A. Clippers, who took Blake Griffin with the first overall pick, and the Orlando Magic, who did not draft anyone but who upgraded their roster by acquiring Vince Carter. Everyone calls Griffin a "can't miss" prospect but that is hyperbole; there have been players more talented than he is who did not become big stars, whether due to injuries or other factors. Griffin certainly looks like he will be a very good NBA player but no one is a "can't miss" player--particularly someone who will be starting his career in the NBA black hole known as the L.A. Clippers.

Van Gundy said that the Spurs are the big winners, because a few days ago they traded Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas to bring in Richard Jefferson. That indicates just how nondescript this draft seems to be: the winners may be teams that brought in veteran help, as opposed to teams that picked young players.

It is interesting to note that while both Jackson and Van Gundy wholeheartedly praised the Carter deal for Orlando, neither Van Gundy nor Jackson think that the O'Neal trade alone made the Cavs any better; Van Gundy rightly pointed out that the Cavs were already a championship team before making that deal and that with O'Neal clogging up the middle not only on defense but also on offense the Cavs must acquire a power forward who can spread the court by making jump shots. LeBron James likes to run pick and pop plays with Zydrunas Ilgauskas or pick and roll plays with Anderson Varejao, but Ilgauskas' minutes will obviously be slashed and Varejao will have less room to roll if O'Neal is planted in the low post demanding the ball.

For the record, here are some highlights from my previous four years of draft night coverage:

First Impressions of the 2008 NBA Draft

What I said in 2008: "Van Gundy said that the Sonics now face a 'critical decision' regarding which positions Durant and Westbrook will play. Durant played shooting guard last year. Will Westbrook take over that spot, moving Durant to small forward, or will Westbrook play point guard? I'm not sure what Westbrook's best position is but I never agreed with putting Durant in the backcourt; he needs to bulk up a bit, toughen up on the boards and play small forward, because he does not belong on the outside chasing 6-5 shooting guards around screens."

What I think now: Westbrook came on strong in the second half of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder--the Sonics' new name--as he started all 29 games after the All-Star break. Overall, he played in all 82 games--starting 65 of them--and averaged 15.3 ppg, 5.3 apg and 4.9 rpg while playing point guard. More importantly, the Thunder fired Coach P.J. Carlesimo and his replacement Scott Brooks immediately moved Durant to small forward, producing instant dividends as Durant's scoring average (25.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (.476) both increased markedly from his rookie year numbers (20.3 and .430 respectively). The Thunder went 20-62 in 2008 and 1-12 in 2009 under Carlesimo with Durant at shooting guard and then went 22-47 the rest of the 2009 season under Brooks with Durant playing his natural small forward position.

First Impressions of the 2007 NBA Draft, Soon to be Renamed the "Paul Allen Buys Every Draft Pick Show"

What I said in 2007: "Nothing lends itself more to overanalysis and wild hyperbole than the draft (any draft, not just the NBA's). None of the draft picks has played one second of basketball at the NBA level, let alone 82 regular season games over a period of many months, so the dramatic, overblown statements and projections that are offered up by 'experts' are just that: dramatic and overblown."

What I think now: Those two sentences should be the preamble to every single article that is written right after any draft.

Thoughts on the NBA Draft (2006)

What I said in 2006: "There were so many trades going on throughout the draft that I kept waiting for Monty Hall to come out of the audience and take the microphone away from Dan Patrick. Greg Anthony was so befuddled at one point that he said, 'No comment,' as if he were being deposed under oath. Stephen A. Smith completely ripped the Portland Trail Blazers but I don't understand why he did not ask a direct question of Blazers President Steve Patterson when Patterson appeared on the telecast via satellite. Portland has clearly made some questionable moves in the past, but they got rid of undersized point guard Sebastian Telfair and obtained LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, either of whom conceivably could turn out to be the best player in this year's draft. Portland also acquired Raef LaFrentz and Dan Dickau while shipping away Theo Ratliff and Victor Khryapa. It seems unfair and misguided for Smith to criticize these deals three seconds after they have transpired when there is a decent chance that these moves actually helped Portland. Ratliff is a quality shotblocker but Portland hardly gave up the house to get Aldridge and Roy. Smith's verbal broadsides against Portland came across as the proverbial 'shoot, ready, aim' style of analysis. Just because ESPN made a movie about Telfair does not mean that he will be a great NBA player."

What I think now: Portland fans are happy that Stephen A. Smith is not running their team; NBA fans are happy Smith is no longer a paricipant in ESPN's NBA Draft coverage.

Thoughts on the NBA Draft (2005)

What I said in 2005: "Utah...acquired the third pick from Portland and selected Illinois' Deron Williams, a poor man's Jason Kidd who seems to be the perfect fit for Jerry Sloan's system. He won't make anyone forget John Stockton (who could?) but Utah expects him to man the point guard spot for the next 10 years or so."

What I think now: I was right to praise the Williams pick and to pan the Clippers' choice of Yaroslav Korolev with the 12th pick. On the other hand, I did not even mention Chris Paul and he has turned out to be the best player from that draft so far. Atlanta's choice of Marvin Williams over Paul and Deron Williams will only haunt the Hawks for the next decade or so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:06 AM

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Good are the Lakers Compared to Recent Championship Teams?

The L.A. Lakers are often called the most talented and/or deepest team in the NBA. I am skeptical of both claims: the Boston Celtics at full strength are more talented--they have three future Hall of Famers--and there are many teams that have more productive benches than the Lakers, who ranked 16th in the NBA in points per game by bench players during the 2009 regular season; even that ranking is a bit deceptive, because the Lakers' bench players typically play alongside either Pau Gasol or Kobe Bryant, so they benefit from being on the court with someone who attracts a lot of defensive attention.

While Gasol is an excellent complementary player to Kobe Bryant, he would not have been the second best player on the vast majority of championship teams from 1991-2008; Gasol is one of the top 15 players in the NBA today but several of the "sidekicks" on recent championship teams made the 50 Greatest Players List. Here is a comparison of the seven man playoff rotation of the 2009 Lakers to the seven man playoff rotations of the championship teams of the "Phil Jackson era" (i.e., post 1991, when Jackson won the first of his record 10 championships as an NBA coach):

Kobe Bryant has a solid supporting cast around him: Pau Gasol is one of the top 15 players in the NBA, Lamar Odom is well suited to being the third option and Trevor Ariza fits his role perfectly. Derek Fisher provides intangibles that are not measured in the boxscore and Andrew Bynum showed flashes of the player that he may eventually become.

However, most of the championship teams of the past two decades had a future Hall of Famer/All-NBA First or Second Team member/former or current MVP candidate as a second option and an All-Star/All-NBA/All-Defensive Team caliber player as a third option; those teams also generally had either a primetime scorer or All-Defensive team member at small forward.

It is true that some of the players mentioned below added to their resumes (in terms of All-Star selections, All-Defensive team selections, etc.) after playing on championship teams and that members of the 2009 Lakers may do so as well -- but it is extremely unlikely that Gasol, Odom, Ariza or Fisher will materially change how their careers are viewed; Gasol is not going to be considered one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players nor is Odom going to suddenly become a perennial All-Star or a fixture on the All-Defensive Team.

Perhaps Bynum will eventually stay healthy and become an All-Star but during the 2009 playoffs he clearly was nothing more than a role player (unlike Sam Cassell, who was similarly young when he played a big role for the Rockets many years before becoming an All-Star).

Last season, I made the case that the 2008 Lakers were a deep team but not quite as talented as some people suggested. Although the 2008 Lakers had eight players who averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the playoffs, the talent level at the top of their rotation could not be compared with the Celtics, whose roster includes three future Hall of Famers. This year's Lakers are probably a little more talented than last year's Lakers but because the production of several bench players declined markedly the 2009 Lakers are not as deep as the 2008 Lakers; only six Lakers averaged at least 16.8 mpg in the 2009 playoffs.

The 2009 Lakers are Phil Jackson's 10th championship team and they are not as deep as most of the teams that won championships since Jackson claimed his first title in 1991. In this context, I am defining "depth" by evaluating the top seven players (based on playoff mpg) on a given team in terms of their playoff statistics during a championship season while also considering their overall career accomplishments; career accomplishments are relevant because they indicate a player's skill set, talent level and impact. I am focusing on playoff production because this provides the most accurate picture of who did the heavy lifting to win the championship.

The top seven players on the 1991 Chicago Bulls were Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong and Craig Hodges. Everyone except Hodges shot over .500 from the field in the 1991 playoffs; Hodges, who won the All-Star Three Point Shootout three straight years (1990-92), took more than a third of his shots from behind the arc and shot .393 from long range.

Jordan and Pippen are both members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list, while Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong and Bill Cartwright each earned one All-Star selection during their careers. Grant also made the All-Defensive Second Team four times. The 1991 Bulls were both talented and deep. The 1992 and 1993 Bulls had the same seven man playoff rotation except for Scott Williams taking the place of Hodges, who played a limited role during the 1992 championship run and was not on the team in 1993.

By the time Jordan came back from his self-imposed baseball exile to lead the Bulls to three championships from 1996-98, the team's entire seven man rotation had changed except for Jordan and Pippen.

The 1996 Bulls featured Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr. Rodman won seven straight rebounding titles, earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards and made the All-Defensive First Team seven times. He also played in two All-Star games and received two All-NBA Third Team selections. If not for his flamboyant personality, Rodman would likely have garnered many more honors and would be considered a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.

Kukoc won the Sixth Man Award in 1996; throughout his career Kukoc displayed tremendous versatility and a knack for hitting clutch shots. Harper established himself as a 20 ppg scorer early in his career before a knee injury slowed him down; with the Bulls he remade himself into a defensive specialist. Longley was a solid center whose skills fit in well with the Triangle Offense. Kerr is the NBA's career leader in three point field goal percentage. All seven players averaged at least 19.8 mpg in the 1996 playoffs and they all were productive in the context of their roles, though Pippen and Kukoc did not shoot well in the playoffs that year.

The 1997 Bulls were even deeper, not only returning the same seven man rotation but adding Bison Dele (formerly known as Brian Williams) as an eighth man who averaged just .2 mpg fewer than Kerr. Dele was a skilled big man who could score and defend. Dele departed after one season, but the other seven players returned in 1998.

The Houston Rockets won back to back championships in 1994-95. The first Houston championship team featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell, Otis Thorpe, Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell and Mario Elie.

Olajuwon is on the 50 Greatest Players List, Maxwell was a streak shooter who provided scoring/toughness and Thorpe was an excellent scorer/rebounder who annually ranked among the field goal percentage leaders. Seven-time NBA champion Horry began earning the nickname "Big Shot Bob" during his time in Houston, Smith was a standout shooter/playmaker and Cassell made the All-Star team and the All-NBA team once each during his career thanks to his clutch shooting and his playmaking ability. Elie was a "glue guy" for three championship teams.

The 1995 Rockets started slowly and then made a big trade, acquiring Clyde Drexler -- a member of the 50 Greatest Players List -- for Thorpe. The only other change to the seven man rotation was the addition of Pete Chilcutt -- a three point shooting big man -- in place of Maxwell, who only participated in one playoff game before being given a leave of absence by the team.

After Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause imploded the Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs won the 1999 championship in the wake of a lockout-shortened 50 game season. Tim Duncan, Avery Johnson, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Mario Elie, Jaren Jackson and Malik Rose led the way for the Spurs. Duncan and Robinson are each on the 50 Greatest Players List and each won at least one MVP. The well-traveled Johnson proved to be a steady playmaker/leader for the Spurs. Two-time All-Star Elliott was a versatile player. Elie added toughness and championship experience. Jackson led the Spurs in three point field goals made during the playoffs while Rose was a seldom-used banger who played 11.4 mpg, just .5 mpg more than veteran forward Jerome Kersey.

The Spurs made several changes in their rotation by the time they won the 2003 championship, as only Duncan, Robinson and Rose remained. Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili joined the mix.

Jackson's erratic shooting resulted in six 20 point games and nine games of fewer than 10 points during the Spurs' playoff run. Parker, San Antonio's second leading playoff scorer in 2003, has become a three-time All-Star and he won the 2007 Finals MVP. Ginobili has made the All-Star team once and in 2008 he made the All-NBA Third Team and won the Sixth Man Award. After bouncing around the league early in his career, Bowen became a perennial All-Defensive Team member in San Antonio and he also developed into a deadly three point shooter from the corners. Robinson played his last season in 2003 and while he was no longer a prime time offensive threat he still made an impact defensively. Rose's role increased significantly after 1999 and he averaged 23.3 mpg in the 2003 playoffs.

The 2005 Spurs retained Duncan, Parker, Bowen and Ginobili as the nucleus, adding Robert Horry, Brent Barry and Nazr Mohammed to the rotation. Horry's clutch play has already been mentioned. Barry provided dead eye .424 three point shooting, while Mohammed led the team in playoff field goal percentage (.528) and ranked second in rebounding (6.7 rpg). Duncan, Parker, Bowen, Ginobili and Horry also played for the 2007 champions, joined by two-time All-Star Michael Finley and inside presence Fabricio Oberto, who led the Spurs with a .625 field goal percentage in the playoffs.

The Lakers won three championships between the Spurs' first two titles. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant headlined all three teams. O'Neal, who is on the 50 Greatest Players List, finished first, third and third in MVP voting during those seasons, while Bryant made the All-NBA First or Second Team and the All-Defensive First or Second Team all three times while placing 12th, ninth and fifth in MVP voting.

Three-time All-Star Glen Rice was the third scoring option for the 2000 Lakers. Ron Harper, Robert Horry, A.C. Green and Brian Shaw filled out the seven man rotation. Harper, Horry and Green all had previous championship experience, while Shaw had been a starter for playoff teams with several different franchises. Derek Fisher and Rick Fox were the eighth and ninth men in the rotation but they moved up to third and fourth respectively in 2001; Rice went to the Knicks but Horace Grant added rebounding and toughness in place of Rice's shooting. The 37 year old Harper appeared in just six playoff games.

The 2002 Lakers relied more heavily on their top five players -- O'Neal, Bryant, Horry, Fox and Fisher each averaged at least 34.2 mpg, Devean George played 17.2 mpg and Samaki Walker and Brian Shaw nearly tied for the seventh spot in the rotation (12.6 and 12.5 mpg respectively). George and Shaw shot poorly, while Walker provided solid rebounding in his limited minutes.

The 2004 Detroit Pistons are perhaps the most unusual NBA champions of recent times; their roster did not include any MVPs or members of the 50 Greatest Players List: the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics were the last championship team that did not have a former, current or future NBA regular season MVP and/or a member of the 50 Greatest Players List.

However, four of those Pistons made the All-Star team during their careers (Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace) and Tayshaun Prince earned four All-Defensive Team selections. Corliss Williamson won the Sixth Man Award as a Piston in 2002. Future All-Star Mehmet Okur ranked eighth in playoff minutes played, just behind defensive specialist Lindsey Hunter. The Pistons may not have had a superstar but they unquestionably had a deep roster.

The 2006 Miami Heat followed the traditional formula of surrounding two star players (Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal) with solid veteran role players: former All-Stars Gary Payton and Antoine Walker teamed up with quick point guard Jason Williams, rugged inside force Udonis Haslem and versatile defender/three point shooter James Posey to support Wade and O'Neal. Each member of the seven man rotation averaged at least 24.3 mpg in the playoffs. Seven-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mourning averaged 10.3 mpg as the eighth man, ranking third on the team in blocked shots during the playoffs.

As mentioned above, the 2008 Boston Celtics employed three future Hall of Famers: former MVP Kevin Garnett plus perennial All-Stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The rest of the seven man rotation included talented young point guard Rajon Rondo, physically imposing center Kendrick Perkins, James Posey and three-time All-Defensive Team member P.J. Brown. Sam Cassell and promising forward Leon Powe finished just behind Brown in playoff mpg.

The 2009 Lakers do not look that imposing when compared to most of the aforementioned teams. Bryant, a former MVP who surely would be on any future 50 Greatest Players List, was option 2 (or perhaps 1B) for the three Lakers' championship teams earlier in the decade. Second option Pau Gasol has earned one All-NBA Third Team selection in his entire career and has never received a single MVP vote. He would have been the third option on the vast majority of championship teams since 1991, including all six Chicago championship teams, as well as the 2000-2002 Lakers, 2006 Heat, 2007 Spurs and 2008 Celtics.

One could make a good case that he also would have been the third option on the 1999 and 2005 Spurs. The 2004 Pistons ran an "equal opportunity" offense but it is unlikely that in that system he would have been featured over Hamilton and Billups and he may not have received more touches than Rasheed Wallace (depending on Wallace's mindset). The only championship teams from this era for whom Gasol would clearly have been a nice second option are the 1994 Rockets and 2003 Spurs.

In 2009, Lamar Odom posted the best field goal percentage (.524) and three point field goal percentage (.514) of his playoff career. He produced solid scoring (12.3 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg) but would not have taken Horace Grant's spot for the 1991-93 Bulls or Dennis Rodman's position for the 1996-98 Bulls. Odom's scoring and rebounding numbers are comparable to Grant's but Grant was a more consistent player who earned one All-Star selection and four All-Defensive team selections during his career; while not all of those honors took place during Chicago's championship seasons, they speak to Grant's overall talent and level of play.

In contrast, Odom has never made the All-Star team or been selected to the All-Defensive Team. Rodman won three rebounding titles as a Bull, made the All-Defensive First Team once and received some MVP votes in 1996. Odom would not likely take Thorpe's spot for the 1994 Rockets and it would be a close call between Odom and the 1995 version of Horry. Based on positional designation Odom would come off of the bench for the 1999 Duncan/Robinson Spurs, though you could argue that he would be the third most productive player on that roster. Odom's rebounding would be useful for the 2000-2002 Lakers and 2006 Heat.

It is evident that the Bryant-Gasol-Odom trio hardly stands above Jordan-Pippen-Grant/Rodman, Olajuwon-Drexler-Horry, O'Neal-Bryant-Rice and Duncan-Parker-Ginobili.

At best, Bryant-Gasol-Odom ranks in the middle of the pack among championship trios in the past 19 years, primarily because the top two players in most of the other trios are all-time greats or at the very least perennial All-Stars, neither of which is true of Gasol.

The contrast between the Lakers and other recent championship teams is even more dramatic at roster spots four through seven. Trevor Ariza certainly did a fine job as a defender and spot-up three point shooter but he cannot create a shot for himself or others because of his limited skills as a ballhandler/passer. He would not have started at small forward for most of the past 19 championship teams, including the six Bulls teams (Pippen), the 1994 Rockets (Horry, before he shifted to power forward the next season after the Drexler-Thorpe deal), 1999 Spurs (Elliott), 2000 Lakers (Rice), 2004 Pistons (Prince), 2006 Heat (Walker, who actually averaged more mpg than O'Neal even though "stat gurus" insist that Walker is a subpar player) and the 2008 Celtics (Pierce).

Ariza would not likely have started for the 1995 Rockets, though he could have been a nice bench player for that team. Bowen (2003, 2005, 2007 Spurs) does not put up gaudy numbers, but he is a better defender and more proven shooter than Ariza. Based on skill set/familiarity with the Triangle Offense, I doubt that Ariza would start over Rick Fox for the 2001 or 2002 Lakers, either.

Derek Fisher ranked fifth on the 2009 Lakers in playoff minutes played. He struggled mightily with his shot throughout the playoffs (.394 shooting overall, including .284 from three point range), though he came up huge in game four of the Finals. Fisher also had some problems defensively with small, quick point guards. He is a savvy veteran player and a huge upgrade over Smush Parker but he would not start over the sure-shooting Paxson (or Armstrong) for the 1991-93 Bulls or over Harper for the 1996-98 Bulls, nor would he take minutes away from Smith and Cassell in Houston.

Perhaps Fisher could duel Avery Johnson for playing time for the 1999 Spurs. The 2000 Lakers started Harper, while the 2001 and 2002 Lakers started a younger, more athletic, better shooting version of Fisher. Clearly, Fisher would not start over Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups or even Rajon Rondo. I'd take Fisher over the 2006 Miami Heat version of Jason Williams.

Starting center Andrew Bynum averaged just 17.4 mpg in the playoffs for the 2009 Lakers. He may become an excellent player in the future but in the 2009 playoffs he was strictly a role player, reaching double figures in points just five times in 23 games and never reaching double figures in rebounds. Forget comparing Bynum to championship centers Olajuwon, O'Neal and Ben Wallace -- Bynum was not more productive than Bill Cartwright (1991-93 Bulls) or Luc Longley (1996-98 Bulls).

Luke Walton rounded out the Lakers' seven man rotation. Other seventh men of the past two decades include Steve Kerr and Mario Elie, each of whom hit huge shots during championship runs; the 2006 Miami Heat had a future Hall of Famer (Payton) as a seventh man and, while he was not extremely productive, he came through with several big shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM

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Hal Greer: Productive, Consistent and Durable

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Hoop.

Star Guard on a Team for the Ages

Hal Greer made the All-NBA Second Team seven straight years but never was selected to the All-NBA First Team. That’s what happens when you play during the same era as Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, but Greer--a 10-time All-Star who was honored as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players--accomplished something that neither Robertson nor West did: being the leading playoff scorer on a team that defeated Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the playoffs and went on to win an NBA championship.

Russell’s Celtics won eight straight titles and 11 in 13 seasons, but many observers still maintain that the greatest single season team in NBA history is the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers beat Boston 4-1 in the Eastern Division finals and then defeated the Rick Barry-Nate Thurmond San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals. Greer produced 27.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 5.3 apg in the playoffs, while his teammate Wilt Chamberlain posted these mind-boggling numbers: 21.7 ppg, 29.1 rpg and 9.0 apg. Hall of Famer and Top 50 selection Billy Cunningham, the sixth man on the 1967 championship team, says, “Hal Greer was such a smart player. In his mind he had a book about every player he played against and what he had to do to make sure that he got free to get shots. He was probably as fine a screener as a guard as anybody. The thing about it was he knew that if he set a good screen then he would be open because he would force a switch and he would end up being matched up with a bigger, slower player that he knew he could easily beat to get whatever shot he wanted.”

Remember the old shoe commercial with playground legend Lamar Mundane? The voiceover said that Mundane would shoot as soon as he crossed midcourt and the fans would yell, “Layup!” That would be a good way to describe Hal Greer’s top of the key jump shot; Sixers coach Alex Hannum said that Greer made that shot at a 70% clip and gave Greer the green light to launch from that range whenever he was open. Greer’s jump shot was so fluid and so deadly that he shot his free throws that way, connecting on better than 80% of his career attempts. Cunningham offers high praise for Greer’s jump shot: “It was as good as anybody’s who ever played the game. I think the beauty of Hal Greer’s game is that he knew where he was most effective and he never shot the ball from an area where he was not completely confident and comfortable. He never went outside of 18-20 feet maximum, but he was deadly and he had the ability to get to that spot.”

The Winding Road from West Virginia to Syracuse to Philadelphia

Greer was born in Huntington, West Virginia on June 26, 1936 and when he signed with Marshall he became the first black athlete to play for a major college in that state. In 1955-56, his first varsity season, Greer shot a blistering 60.1% from the field, averaging 15.5 ppg and 6.7 ppg as Marshall won the Mid-American Conference title, earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Greer improved his numbers in the next two seasons (18.9 ppg and 13.8 rpg in 1956-57 and 23.6 ppg and 11.7 rpg in 1957-58) but Marshall finished second in the MAC to Miami (Oh.) both years, which meant no trips to the NCAA Tournament since at that time only the conference champion could earn an NCAA bid. The 6-2, 175 pound Greer played guard, forward and even center, battling on the boards with behemoths like 6-8, 240 pound Miami center (and future NBA All-Star) Wayne Embry.

The Syracuse Nationals selected Greer in the second round of the 1958 NBA draft. Initially, established stars Dolph Schayes, Red Kerr and George Yardley shouldered most of the offensive load. By 1961-62 Greer was clearly Syracuse’s top player. He averaged a team-high 22.8 ppg, finishing 13th in the league (1619 points; leaders were ranked by totals—not averages—until 1969-70) in one of the toughest individual scoring races ever; Chamberlain set the all-time single season record with 50.4 ppg (4029 points) and five other players averaged over 30 ppg. Greer’s .819 free throw shooting placed him ninth in the NBA.

Greer made the All-NBA Second team for the first time in 1962-63, placing ninth in scoring (1562 points; 19.5 ppg) and fifth in free throw shooting (.834). In 1963-64 the Nationals moved to Philadelphia and were renamed the 76ers. Schayes served as player-coach, but only played in 24 games. Greer ranked seventh in scoring (1865 points; 23.3 ppg), third in free throw shooting (.829) and seventh in assists (374; 4.7 apg). Despite his consistently excellent play, Greer’s team lost in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season.

The Nationals replaced Philadelphia’s original NBA team, the Warriors, which had moved to San Francisco the year before, taking Chamberlain with them. Bringing Chamberlain back to Philadelphia via a midseason trade in 1964-65 transformed the 76ers into a title contender. Chamberlain and rookie power forward Luke Jackson provided the interior strength that the team had been missing. Greer again ranked among the league leaders in scoring, assists and free throw percentage.

The 76ers battled the Celtics in a memorable seven game Eastern Division finals. The Celtics were clinging to a 110-109 lead with just seconds left when Russell’s inbounds pass hit one of the wires holding up the backboard, a turnover that gave the 76ers one last chance. Greer tried to inbound the ball to smooth shooting forward Chet Walker, but John Havlicek’s steal preserved the Celtics’ win—a play immortalized by Celtics’ announcer Johnny Most’s raspy exclamation, “Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over!”

Philadelphia had the NBA’s best record in 1965-66, 55-25. Greer ranked sixth in scoring (1819 points; 22.7 ppg), tenth in free throw percentage (.804) and tenth in assists (384; 4.8 apg). The much anticipated Eastern Division finals rematch with Boston proved to be a very anti-climactic 4-1 Celtics victory. Schayes won Coach of the Year honors, but the disappointing playoff run cost him his job. The 76ers hired Hannum, Chamberlain’s coach with the Warriors, with one goal in mind—beat the hated Celtics.

The 1966-67 Sixers finished with a 68-13 record, the best in NBA history at that time (a mark since broken by the Chamberlain-West 1971-72 Lakers and the Jordan-Pippen Bulls in 1995-96 and 1996-97). Greer averaged 22.1 ppg (ranking sixth in the NBA with 1765 points), 5.3 rpg and 3.8 apg. The 76ers rolled to the championship, winning 11 of 15 postseason games. Cunningham recalls, “We had a team whose only goal was to win a championship, especially considering how close the team came in 1965. It was a very focused team and a very unselfish team—and that’s the way Hal Greer played. Hal Greer never forced things or did things that would not be beneficial to the team.”

In 1967-68 the 76ers had the best record in the league for the third straight year, 62-20. Greer won the 1968 All-Star Game MVP after scoring 19 points in one quarter, a record that stood until Glen Rice had a 20 point quarter in the 1997 All-Star Game. Greer posted the highest regular season scoring average of his career (24.1 ppg), just trailing Chamberlain (24.3 ppg) for the team lead. Cunningham broke his wrist in the first round playoff series versus New York, but the 76ers beat the Knicks and took a 3-1 lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Division finals. The Celtics rallied to win three straight, eliminated the Sixers 100-96 in Philadelphia in game seven and went on to win the championship.

From the Sublime to the 1972-73 76ers

Hannum resigned after the 1968 season and coached the Oakland Oaks to the 1968-69 ABA championship. General Manager Jack Ramsay took over as coach. Chamberlain and Sixers management feuded during the summer of 1968 until the team traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson replaced Chamberlain at center but suffered the first of a series of injuries that derailed his career. In 1968-69, Cunningham took over the role of leading scorer, Greer averaged 23.1 ppg, making the All-NBA Second Team for final time, and the Sixers managed to post the second best record in the league, 55-27. Any thoughts of the 76ers being legitimate title contenders evaporated after Boston trounced Philadelphia 4-1 in the Eastern Division semifinals. Russell concluded his NBA career with a Finals victory over Chamberlain’s Lakers.

The 76ers slipped in the standings the next two years but still qualified for the playoffs. Greer made his last All-Star appearance in 1970 and by 1971-72 the Sixers slumped to 30-52. Then Cunningham jumped to the ABA before the 1972-73 season and Philadelphia collapsed, posting the worst record in NBA history, 9-73. That turned out to be Greer’s last season and, while it was hardly a fitting conclusion to his fine career, just the fact that he was still in the league was remarkable: at the time of Greer’s retirement he had played more games than anyone in NBA history (1122) and he ranked behind only Chamberlain, Robertson, West and Elgin Baylor on the regular season career scoring list. Greer’s 21,586 points are still the 76ers’ franchise record. Greer never made the All-NBA First Team, but he firmly established himself as one of the greatest guards in NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 AM

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Deconstructing Bad Writing: Krolik's Slam Job on Kobe Bryant, Part II

Part I of this series examined John Krolik's deeply flawed article about why game seven of the Lakers-Rockets series would prove to be the biggest game of Bryant's career.

I casually referenced Krolik's article a few times in posts/comments at 20 Second Timeout, prompting Krolik to author a lengthy rebuttal. This post is my response to that rebuttal.

Part II: Krolik's Rebuttal


Krolik's website is called "Cavs: The Blog," so it is hilarious that he repeatedly indicates that he does not consider me to be objective. Pot, may I introduce you to the kettle? Check out the first paragraph of Krolik's rebuttal:

The fact is this: it’s going to be a long off-season. The team fell short of expectations, and we’re going to be hearing stuff like some of what’s leaked its way into the comments sections here over the last couple of days. And even if we were to trade Pavlovic for CP3 tomorrow, there’s still going to be a weight of expectations unfufilled that are going to hang over this team for a long time, and without any games to fill the void, it’s going to be rough for a bit.

"Even if we (emphasis added) were to trade Pavlovic for CP3 tomorrow, there’s still going to be a weight of expectations unfufilled that are going to hang over this team for a long time..." Apparently, I missed the memo announcing that Krolik had joined the Cavs' front office. That sentence contains the same kind of mixed up language ("there's still going to be a weight of expectations..." instead of "there are") so prominently featured in the original article. You will note that Krolik's rebuttal is littered with misspelled words, grammatical errors and awkwardly constructed sentences. When I found out that he had attacked me I laughed at the very idea of someone who can barely write coherently trying to engage in a war of words with me; this brings to mind the old saying about bringing a knife to a gunfight, except this is more like a broken plastic knife versus a cruise missile.

Krolik says that he is "unhappy" about being "mentioned...quite unfavorably" at 20 Second Timeout. He grumbles about the fact that I did not link to his article and goes off on a tangent in which, among other things, he calls me "a man who certainly, at the very least, doesn’t mind dragging folks into the mud if the opportunity presents itself." What does that have to do with Krolik's article and my criticisms of it? Nothing, of course. How can a bad writer who does not think clearly defend poorly thought out, bad writing? He has no choice but to resort to ad hominem attacks. Hey, I am used to this; Krolik is not the first bad writer who responded to me by using such tactics, as I discuss in the Postscript.

Krolik proceeds to list persons/entities
who he says are my "enemies." Apparently, Krolik considers Slate to be an enemy of mine because I disagreed with something that Slate published. Krolik's thinking in this regard is very immature. I am not at war with Slate or anyone else who Krolik listed; I simply expressed dissenting viewpoints regarding various articles.

Krolik suggests that his readers visit Ballhype and read the comments that I have posted on other people's articles. This is his attempt to prove that I am a bad person and thereby convince himself that my criticism of his article is the product of my maliciousness as opposed to an objective evaluation of his flaws as a writer/basketball commentator. The Ballhype comments make more sense if you click on the relevant threads and read them in context because otherwise you are just reading one side of various ongoing discussions but in any case it is obvious that most of my comments were not hostile. The first "hostile" comment that is listed is almost all the way down the page and it is my response to Kelly Dwyer stating--incorrectly--that I voted down a certain article and that I consistently voted down other people's articles. Dwyer told a bold faced lie in order to make other bloggers feel antagonistic toward me and even though the voting records are confidential I told the Ballhype owners that they had my permission to reveal my voting records to prove that Dwyer lied. In a later comment I also pointed out that anyone who monitored my voting habits as closely as Dwyer alleged that he did would know that the number of "no" votes registered in my name (a stat that Ballhype publicly tracked) had not increased during the relevant time period, proving that I did not vote down the article in question and that therefore Dwyer lied. My refutation of Dwyer ended that thread.

Nearly halfway through his purported rebuttal, Krolik finally gets around to actually discussing his article. Krolik says, "As I noted in the article, a loss in that game would have been by far the most damaging loss of Kobe’s career." As I mentioned in Part I of this series, Krolik stated that premise somewhat awkwardly in the first paragraph and then rambled aimlessly for a stretch before returning to that theme--via a David Foster Wallace quote--at the end. Krolik's contention is faulty and his writing is slipshod both in terms of content and craftsmanship. This is Krolik's interpretation of my critique: "Mr. Friedman seems to think the upswing was 'Hey, if Kobe loses, we can say he SUCKS!' Why I would not have waited to write this article until after the Lakers would have lost is unclear if this was my only interest."

No, my critique of Krolik's reasoning skills and writing ability goes quite a bit deeper than Krolik imagines; I think that what he wrote is illogical but even worse than that he disingenuously wrote the article in a fashion that enabled him to have the best of both worlds, from his biased perspective: Krolik bizarrely asserted that the Lakers had an easy road to the title if they could get by Houston, giving himself an excuse to dismiss the game's importance if the Lakers won. However, by later rambling back toward his original statement that this was the biggest game in Bryant's career, Krolik couched his words in a way to leave open the possibility of writing a very critical piece about Bryant if the Lakers lost.

Sure enough, Krolik says that because the Lakers won in a blowout, "Game 7 became an insignificant footnote." If the game carried such weight for Bryant's legacy, how can the outcome be "insignificant"? Are we really supposed to believe that a die-hard Cavs fan like Krolik would have thought that a Lakers' loss was insignificant, even if Bryant performed very well? After all, as a Cavs fan Krolik feels compelled to downgrade Bryant in order to elevate James, something that I have never done with either player; I have consistently said that they are the two best players in the game today. It is ironic that some of the people who commented on Krolik's rebuttal implied that I am someone who bashes James in order to praise Bryant. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that I have praised both players extensively and I evaluate them objectively using the same skill set based criteria that I use to evaluate all players.

Imagine if the Cavs won a game that the proprietor of "Cavs: The Blog" had declared to be hugely important for LeBron James' legacy. Do you suppose that he would not write anything in the aftermath of such a game? Krolik made a big deal about this game seven but, after the Lakers eliminated the Rockets, Krolik threw the whole issue down the memory hole.

The use of "advanced basketball statistics" provided one of the sidebar stories to the L.A.-Houston series, because the Rockets asserted that they used such concepts to devise the best possible defensive scheme to use against Bryant. I covered that angle of the series with a lot of depth, but Krolik dismisses my work by quoting a fragment from one sentence that I wrote--"after this series is over the New York Times should do a followup article detailing how Bryant overcame Houston’s defensive preparation by utilizing his skill set strengths to maximum effectiveness"--and then snidely remarking, "Take note, SLAM during playoff time and the New York Times Magazine: If you don’t fufill your puff piece responsibilities on Kobe Bryant, the public will not stand for such a wanton disregard of their need to be informed." I hardly am interested in reading or writing a "puff piece" about anyone. Check out the right hand sidebar here: do you see any puff pieces? Krolik's attempts to mock me--complete with spelling errors and awkward sentence construction--are hilarious and yet pathetic.

Krolik then makes some more snide remarks while wondering why I would attack a SlamOnline piece since I wrote some articles a while ago for SlamOnline. If you write for a publication does that mean you should never disagree with anything that is published there? He mocks the Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant Vs. LeBron James that I wrote for SlamOnline almost a year ago. Read it and judge for yourself who writes better, who understands the sport better and who is more unbiased; keep in mind that I wrote the article prior to the 2009 season and I
amended my evaluation slightly by the end of the season. Don't hold your breath waiting for Krolik to produce a coherent, in depth and objective comparison of Bryant and James.

After professing that he got the SlamOnline job purely based on his talents and not his networking abilities, Krolik writes, "It’s pretty clear that what I really did was make a percieved slight of Mr. Friedman’s favorite player-if that article had been about anyone else, I do not imagine my abilities getting publicly called into question. What Mr. Friedman is essentially attempting to do is to use Kobe Bryant’s considerable basketball proficiency to prove my essential worthlessness as a professional and a human being." Note once again the misspelled word and the awkward sentence structure; apparently, Krolik believes that poor spelling and lack of writing ability are much sought after "talents" at SlamOnline and ESPN.com--and, based on the stuff that they publish, he may be right!

My favorite player is Julius Erving, not Kobe Bryant, but I am able to write objectively about Erving, Bryant and all other NBA players because I take my craft seriously. I don't think that Krolik is "worthless" as a human being. His article about the significance of the Lakers-Rockets game seven is very poorly thought out and very poorly written. I also wonder what value the editors of ESPN and SlamOnline see in such work. The fact that Kobe Bryant is the subject of Krolik's piece is irrelevant to my assessment. I have criticized various publications for sloppy/unprofessional articles about players ranging from LeBron James to Dave DeBusschere to Daequan Cook. If Krolik had said that LeBron James' career will be defined by the number one seeded Cavs losing to the Orlando Magic I would have responded the same way that I am responding now.

Postscript:

If you read the comments section in Krolik's rebuttal piece you will see some additional references to my "feuds" with various people. Those "feuds" happened a while ago and most people probably do not know the details, so I will take this opportunity provide the correct information; it is tiresome to hear the allegation that I seek out "feuds" when the reality is that I am the one who has been the victim of classless behavior by the very people I am accused of wronging--and it tells you a lot about Krolik's character that instead of researching these incidents he simply tried to create a diversion by attacking me. Krolik proved that he would stoop to any tactic to avoid dealing with the real issue at hand: his poorly written article about Bryant and the shockingly low quality of his writing in general at "Cavs: The Blog" and various other outlets.

My "feud" with Kelly Dwyer happened after I read one of his articles (my first mistake) in which he bragged about how many basketball games he watches each day--it worked out to something like 27 hours a day of basketball. I made a comment at a blog called Hardwood Paroxysm in which I alluded to someone--I never mentioned Dwyer's name--who watches basketball more than 24 hours a day. That is pretty mild stuff in the Wild West climate of blogs; people have certainly said much worse things about me. Dwyer then fired off an email to me fuming that everyone in the world knew exactly who I was talking about (at least he doesn't have an inflated sense of his importance) and that I should have been man enough to first write to him directly, as if I need advice from him about how to be a writer and a man. He offered some elaborate explanation of how he watches the key portions of 10 different games but not all of the footage of all of these games; the original passage in his article did not make that clear at all or explain how he magically is able to only watch the essential game segments. After I responded politely but correctly that it is not my fault that in his article he did not clearly express what he meant Dwyer sent me an expletive-filled email. I initially posted that email on 20 Second Timeout so that everyone could see just how much bile oozes out of him but then thought better of it and took the post down.

My "feud" with the blog Basketbawful consisted of my attempts to politely correct his/their mistaken impression that Steve Nash is a more valuable player than Kobe Bryant. You can read my post on that subject here. Basketbawful responded by making fun of my physical appearance. I replied with a post in which I chided Basketbawful for veering off topic and attempted to steer the conversation back to the subject at hand. That exchange took place several years ago and the passage of time has not made Basketbawful's case for Nash versus Bryant any more compelling. Like Krolik, the Basketbawful crew are unabashed fans who do not pretend to be unbiased; the Basketbawful crew make it quite clear that they despise Kobe Bryant--and yet they assert that I am the one who lacks objectivity. Let's see, Larry Bird, Jerry West, Mark Jackson, Steve Smith, Jeff Van Gundy and countless other players/coaches/executives speak about Bryant in largely the same terms that I do--Jackson and Smith actually say that Bryant is better in some respects than Michael Jordan--but a guy running "Cavs: the Blog" and some clowns who don't even use their real names are the unbiased, objective observers. Right.

Later, I "feuded" with some guy named Kellex, who tried to cover a conference call about SlamBall without using a tape recorder or taking notes; he published a "transcript" riddled with errors--he misattributed various questions and quotes--and when I contacted him and politely suggested that he correct what he posted he made fun of my physical appearance. Here is a post that I made about that incident. There is something seriously wrong with a person who is so unprofessional about his work and then lashes out so viciously when someone else tries to help him. I'd never heard of Kellex before that time and all I tried to do was help him out by sharing with him the information from my transcript (I tape recorded the conference call). I assumed--wrongly--that someone who is so obviously inexperienced and clueless would welcome some assistance from someone who is an experienced writer/interviewer. Kellex' writing skills are actually even worse than Krolik's, so I am surprised that Kellex is not an NBA editor at ESPN.com or SlamOnline.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am not self-conscious about my appearance and I could not care less about the opinions of fools--particularly ones like Basketbawful and Kellex who don't even use their real, full names or post real pictures of themselves--but my point is that all I contributed to these so-called feuds were my attempts to analyze basketball in a professional manner (or have a little fun with Dwyer for taking himself so seriously). I learned that Dwyer is pompous, humorless and vindictive; I already knew that he writes in a ponderous, deliberately obscure style that obfuscates more than it clarifies. I also began to realize just how much the basketball blogging universe resembles nothing so much as a snobbish high school clique. You don't have to do much research to see that Henry Abbott, Kelly Dwyer, Basketbawful and a few others repeatedly link to each other and promote each other's work. Krolik has skillfully maneuvered himself into the good graces of that clique and this will surely lead to his rapid advancement in the field even if he never actually learns how to write well. Many bloggers seem to think that they have to bow down to these guys but I have never kowtowed to anyone and I never will.

If being honest and objective has cost me "friends" in this business it really has not cost me anything at all, because I would not want to be associated in any way with people like Dwyer, Basketbawful and Kellex. Their responses to me revealed their lack of character and I am grateful that I learned the truth early enough to keep a wide berth from all of them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 AM

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deconstructing Bad Writing: Krolik's Slam Job on Kobe Bryant, Part I

I recently explained specifically why the "New and Improved Slam 2009 Top 50" is a subpar product. Writing is a craft and it is disappointing when people who are allegedly professionals do not take that craft seriously. I'm not trying to call out people by name--the only writer I mentioned in my Slam post is one who did an above average job--but sometimes an article is so egregiously poor that there is just no way around mentioning who exactly created it.

A while ago I indicated in passing that someone had thrown together a hideous article for SlamOnline in which he declared that the upcoming Lakers-Rockets game seven would be the defining moment of Kobe Bryant's career. I did not initially say who wrote this nonsense, because it is more important to correct faulty reasoning/poor writing than to just bash a particular writer. I also did not want to give the article more attention that it deserved; admittedly, this is a difficult, fine line to walk: how does one correct falsehood without at the same time publicizing it? Eventually, one of my regular readers wrote a comment asking me who wrote the offending article and I told him that it was John Krolik. I was not trying to make a big deal about "who," because to me it is more important to focus on "what," namely the poor reasoning involved in even thinking up such a piece in the first place. However, Krolik decided to attempt to refute in detail my take on his piece, which is funny on three levels:

1) His original article is poorly thought out and even more poorly written.
2) He is attacking a ghost, because I never wrote a formal refutation of his piece but merely mentioned it parenthetically a few times and I only brought up his name after somebody specifically asked me who I am talking about.
3) His attempted refutation of my point of view merely provides additional examples of the limitations of his critical reasoning skills and writing abilities.

Naturally, since Krolik attempted to refute a critique that I did not bother to write, I feel duty bound to provide an in depth analysis of both his original article and his subsequent article directed toward me. This post will discuss the original article, while Part II will address his second article.

Part I: Krolik's Original Article

Krolik begins the first piece by declaring, "On Saturday, ESPN will air, commercial-free, a highly positive documentary about the man who, despite what people will tell you about some kid from Akron who people are starting to notice, is still the NBA’s marquee name, and maybe the biggest name in team sports."

How many times did you have to read that sentence to decipher what Krolik actually said? He is trying to be cutesy or cutting edge but instead all he does is confuse the reader. Who is the documentary about? Krolik's awkward style forces you to double back to confirm that the documentary is not about the player from Akron but rather "the NBA's marquee name." Once you understand what Krolik means you have to ask yourself if it is really true that people are only "starting to notice" LeBron James, who has been a public figure since his high school days. In just one sentence, Krolik manages to make the reader wonder--and not in a good way--what his article is about and Krolik makes an assertion that is clearly false.

Krolik then says that the day after the documentary airs, "
Kobe Bryant will suit up for the game with the highest stakes in any game of what is already a sure-fire Hall Of Fame Career." At some level, Krolik realizes that this is nonsensical. In fact, his next sentence reads, "Now, I realize this sounds crazy." Yes, it does. Krolik suggests that Bryant never faced do or die pressure until this year's game seven against Houston. As only Krolik can so awkwardly phrase it, "He got his first ring, the monkey that took so many great players so many years to get off their back, if they ever did, at 22 years old, the clear beta dog on a team carried to the championship by Shaq averaging 30/15/3 throughout the entire playoffs while Kobe averaged a clean, complimentary 22."

Note the incorrect word usage; the correct word is "complementary." Again, how many times did you have to read that sentence to really understand what Krolik said? Note how he mixes the plural "great players" and singular "off their back" (instead of "backs") and that the sentence has no rhythm or flow to it whatsoever. If I were trying to express Krolik's apparent sentiments I would perhaps write: "
At just 22 years old Kobe Bryant averaged 22 ppg and won his first ring while playing a complementary role to Shaquille O'Neal's dominating 30 ppg/15 rpg/3 bpg; Bryant had his whole career in front of him and yet he had already achieved a lofty goal that proved elusive to great stars such as Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing." Note the difference between a crisply written passage citing specific examples and Krolik's meandering, vague mess.

Krolik then goes through a slipshod version of Bryant's playoff career, apparently oblivious to the fact that people did in fact expect O'Neal and Bryant to win championships and that Bryant received plenty of criticism--much of it unwarranted--when the Lakers failed to do so. Heck, Bryant received criticism even when the Lakers succeeded, because the love affair between O'Neal and the media runs very deep. Krolik neglects to mention that the Lakers' championship run began with Bryant's great performance in the Lakers' 89-84 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals; Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (25 points), rebounds (11), assists (seven) and blocked shots (four). Many great players never make it to the Finals even once, so how foolish is it for Krolik to contend that Bryant did not face do or die pressure in that game seven? That could have been Bryant's one and only chance to play in the NBA Finals; Dan Marino went to the Super Bowl at a similarly tender age and then never made it back to the NFL's title game. Yet Krolik does not even mention how well Bryant performed in that situation.

Then, in the pivotal game four of the 2000 NBA Finals--when the Pacers could either tie the Lakers 2-2 or fall into a 3-1 hole--Bryant took over in overtime after O'Neal fouled out, carrying the Lakers to a 120-118 win. Bryant finished with 28 points on 14-27 field goal shooting despite a severely sprained ankle that caused him to miss game three (the Lakers lost by nine points sans Bryant).

Although Krolik is focused on the drama of one game or one moment, the truth is that players demonstrate their ability to perform under pressure by being consistent for a sustained period of time. Bryant was the leading playmaker for the Lakers' 2000-02 championship teams. During that time, he made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams and progressed from 12th to ninth to fifth in MVP voting. In the 2001 playoffs he dropped 48 points and 16 rebounds on the Kings in a closeout game on the road and then in his next game--the series opener on the road versus the Spurs--he had 45 points and 10 rebounds. Bryant shot 15-29 from the field (.517) in the first game and 19-35 (.543) in the second one.

The Portland game, the Indiana game and those back to back 40-plus point efforts are defining moments in Bryant's playoff career but Krolik does not mention any of these games. Does he know anything about basketball history? Is such knowledge a requirement to write for SlamOnline?

The Lakers were considered by many people to be the favorites in last year's NBA Finals, even though the Celtics enjoyed homecourt advantage. When the Lakers lost game four after leading by 24 points it seemingly only took about 10 minutes for every sportswriter in America to declare that this result forever proved that Kobe Bryant should never be compared to Michael Jordan; much like Krolik tried to do before game seven, these writers attempted to define Bryant's whole career by one game, a falsehood that I summarily rejected.
It is absurd for Krolik to say that Bryant did not face pressure in the 2008 Finals.

After providing this flawed, incomplete account of Bryant's career to date, Krolik hems and haws about what game seven will mean, even though he told the reader in his first paragraph
that game seven will involve "the highest stakes" of any game in Bryant's career. Krolik backs away from his original premise and spends the second part of his article searching in vain for a unifying theme, thrashing around desperately like a drowning man looking for a life preserver.

On the one hand, Krolik says, "
If the Lakers win, there’s a lot still to be written, but there’s a lot that changes." He then argues that the Lakers face favorable matchups the rest of the way and concludes, "Make no mistake—the Kobe Bryant that’s struggling to beat this depleted Rockets team is the same man who could easily be hoisting the Bill Russell trophy in a few weeks’ time."

However, he starts the next paragraph with these ominous words: "
But if these Lakers somehow lose, history changes." Krolik notes that Lamar Odom might leave the Lakers, Pau Gasol might not continue to play at a high level--naturally, Krolik offers no reason to believe that a player in his prime will suddenly drop off--Andrew Bynum may never reach his potential and Bryant may finally show the signs of age. Krolik declares, "The slow path Kobe’s taken to escape from Shaq’s shadow and lead a team to the promised land by himself turns into a cautionary tale, a journey began by ego and ending in misery."

First, Bryant did not try to "lead a team to the promised land by himself." That is nonsense; the Lakers decided not to give O'Neal a max deal for max years because he refused to get in shape and then the Lakers re-signed Bryant and built the team around him, resulting in two Western Conference titles and an NBA championship in 2009. Meanwhile, O'Neal won a championship in Miami but also presided over perhaps the quickest fall from grace ever by a champion that retained its key players. Then, he found an escape hatch to Phoenix, a team that also rapidly became a non-contender upon his arrival. Now O'Neal is looking for a new escape hatch, angling to hook up with LeBron James or--irony of ironies--Kobe Bryant. Second, how is this a "slow path"? Some teams struggle to make the playoffs but meanwhile the Lakers went from the lottery in 2005 to the Finals in 2008. If that is "slow" then how would Krolik describe what the Clippers and Wizards are doing? Third, what is the "cautionary" element in this story? Bryant is regarded as the hardest working and most fundamentally sound player in the game. If the Lakers lost to the Rockets in game seven would such a setback invalidate the worth of those traits? Krolik is trying to make profound declarations but upon careful consideration nothing that he says actually makes sense! His writing lacks a sense of history/perspective, it is difficult to read because of his poor craftsmanship and he does not consistently maintain his stated theme.

In the final paragraph, Krolik references David Foster Wallace, the great writer who recently committed suicide. Krolik tries to tie together this rambling mess of an article by quoting a commencement speech that Wallace gave: "The old fish says 'Boy, the water sure is nice today.' The young one responds 'What the heck is water?'" Krolik then writes a giant run-on sentence: "The 81 points, the playoff defeats, the beautiful jumpers, the impossible passes, the taunts, the arrogance, the brilliance, the 4th quarter takeovers, the aloofness, the games where forced jumper after forced jumper falls short, the player who elevated scoring into art and turned the art of a 10-man game into nothing more than scoring." After some more bleatings, Krolik finally ends the article with these lines: "This is Kobe. This is water. Beneath all of what we need him to be, want him to be, say he is, this is a man. A man who has played some of the best basketball ever played, but a man, and for the next 48 hours he will be allowed to exist as one in all of our eyes. OK, I’ll be a little disappointed if Game 7 ends up being a blowout."

What did we supposedly learn from Krolik's article? We learned that people are only just now figuring out that LeBron James is great. We learned that Kobe Bryant has hit many game winning shots and won three championships but never faced real pressure until Krolik says that Bryant faced pressure. We learned that if the Lakers beat the Rockets they may cruise to the championship but if the Lakers lose to the Rockets we may never hear from them again. We learned that Krolik feels brilliant when he quotes David Foster Wallace. We learned that Kobe Bryant is water. I am still waiting to learn from Krolik what kind of tree Bryant would be if he were a tree.

This is what SlamOnline presents as top notch basketball writing--and I am supposedly a bad guy for saying that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.

As a counterpoint to Krolik's bizarre take on this series, here are links to my recaps of game six and game seven:

Recap of Houston's game six victory over the Lakers

Recap of the Lakers's 89-70 game seven win

Do you prefer basketball writing that is awkward and indecipherable or basketball writing that actually explains the nuances of the game?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 AM

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