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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Artest versus Ariza

"You're a player but only because you be playin' yaself."--Jeru the Damaja, "Ya Playin' Yaself"

A prime example of the media's never-ending quest to completely misunderstand how basketball games are won and lost is the sudden elevation of Trevor Ariza to "elite" status. I've lost track of how many different outlets have recently slapped that title on Ariza, who averaged 8.9 ppg and 4.3 rpg last season as the L.A. Lakers' starting small forward; Ariza would not have started for most of the championship teams of the past two decades and, by any objective reckoning--either using a skill set based evaluation or even the "advanced basketball statistics" that are so popular in some quarters--he is at best an average starting small forward. Ariza is a good finisher in the open court, he can make open three pointers and he is a good defender but he is below average at creating a shot (for himself or others), ballhandling, passing and free throw shooting. Ariza is a classic role player--a Bruce Bowen/Shane Battier/James Posey type of player--who started for the Lakers because the Lakers are woefully thin at the small forward spot, something that I have written about for years; most elite teams have a starting small forward who is a major offensive threat: the NBA's other Conference Finalists in 2009 started LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Hedo Turkoglu at small forward. The 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics started future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce at small forward; Trevor Ariza would have been the third small forward in their rotation behind Pierce and Posey.

Being a Laker should have been a dream come true for Ariza; he went to high school and college in L.A. and playing alongside Kobe Bryant meant that Ariza never had to create a shot for himself or anyone else: he simply waited for Bryant to draw a double team and then either drilled wide open three pointers or slashed to the hoop for dunks. Bryant not only created open three pointers for Ariza but Bryant also taught Ariza how to make those shots. You could not design a more perfect situation for Ariza--and now Ariza has thrown it all away because either he or his agent vastly overestimated his value. The Lakers quite understandably did not want to pay Ariza "elite" level money but they offered him fair market value to re-sign with them. Instead, Ariza decided to shop his wares on the open market and the Lakers took the opportunity to sign Ron Artest, a former All-Star and the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Artest is a legitimate starting-quality small forward at both ends of the court, a lockdown defender who is more physically powerful than Ariza while also being nearly as quick; Artest also can create shots for himself and others. Some foolish people used to say that good players do not want to play with Kobe Bryant--and that such players would certainly not take less money to do so--but Artest gladly accepted a pay cut to team up with Bryant. Artest has the talent of an "elite" player, though it must be said that he does not consistently play at an "elite" level; however, considering that Bryant won a championship with one "elite" player and a cast of role players--including starting small forward Ariza--it is intriguing to wonder about just how well Artest may play when he joins forces with Bryant.

Artest can do everything that Ariza does and then some; from a talent/skill set standpoint there is no comparison whatsoever. Ironically, Ariza ended up signing with the Rockets for even less money than the Lakers offered him; Ariza gained nothing financially but instead of being a starter on a championship contender he will now go back to being a journeyman player on a team that has no realistic shot to win the title.

There are only two possible drawbacks for the Lakers:

(1) Ariza proved that he could accept his limited role, while Artest has often tried to be his team's number one offensive option even when he had teammates who were better suited to do so. Clearly, Bryant should be the Lakers' number one offensive option and Pau Gasol should be the number two offensive option. Lamar Odom has flourished as the third option but the shot distribution dynamic will be interesting to watch in 2009-10; will Odom accept possibly dropping to the fourth option and will Artest be content as either the third or fourth option? This was not an issue with Ariza because he knew that he could not create shots, but Artest likes to have the ball in his hands even though his shot selection can be highly questionable at times. Ideally, the Lakers would like to see Artest only shoot three pointers when he is on balance and receiving a pass from a double-teamed Bryant, as opposed to Artest dribbling for 10 seconds and firing an off-balance trey. Artest will also have a mismatch advantage against many smaller forwards and Coach Phil Jackson will surely encourage Artest to take those players into the post and go to work; Bryant will be on board with that as well: Bryant always has encouraged Luke Walton to go into the post against smaller players, so he certainly will want Artest to do that as well.

(2) Artest has a well-documented history of serious anger management problems, on and off the court; his issues go well beyond anything that Dennis Rodman went through: a significant portion of what Rodman did was a harmless act that did not impact his on court performance (such as his varying hairstyles/bizarre clothing choices) but when Rodman lost focus during games all it took was for Jackson or Michael Jordan to give Rodman a certain look and Rodman got back down to business. In contrast, Artest has committed repeated acts of violence that resulted in league suspensions and/or the involvement of law enforcement personnel. There is a real--and frightening--possibility that Artest could just snap and go off. That said, Jackson and Bryant are probably the coach-player duo that is best equipped to keep Artest in line; Jackson has a unique way of establishing parameters without making his players feel hemmed in, while Bryant commands universal respect (which is not the same thing as being liked--it is much more important) among his peers and will constantly challenge Artest to match his work ethic and focus.

Thanks to Ariza's miscalculation, he "played himself" and the Lakers managed to make a major talent upgrade. It will be interesting to see how Houston utilizes Ariza, because objectively speaking he is not even the team's best small forward; Shane Battier should be the starter, though because of Battier's unselfishness and willingness to accept coming off of the bench Coach Rick Adelman may install Ariza as the nominal starter while still giving Battier at least as many minutes as Ariza gets. Unless the Rockets make a major deal or Tracy McGrady miraculously becomes fully healthy they will not have a player who commands a double team, so Battier and Ariza will not get as many open three point shots as they did last season when they played alongside Yao Ming and Bryant respectively.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:01 AM


Is There Mandatory Drug Testing at the Sporting News?

According to a feature in the July 6, 2009 issue of the Sporting News called "SN's 2009-10 Power Poll," the Washington Wizards rank third in the NBA, just behind the reigning champion L.A. Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason given for that ranking is even more hilarious than the ranking itself: "The Wizards picked up Miller Miller and Randy Foye for a draft pick, girding them against the injuries that tore them down last season." Miller and Foye? That duo vaults the Wizards ahead of the Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics? I don't know what they are smoking/injecting over at SN, but whatever it is has very strong hallucinogenic properties. If things break right then the Wizards have a good shot at making the playoffs next year--but the Wizards have not been an excellent defensive team since they were known as the Bullets and Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld were in their primes. It is highly unlikely that Miller and Foye will spearhead a defensive revival in Washington.

I don't know what kind of player Gilbert Arenas will be in 2009-10 in the wake of his multiple knee surgeries but his return is a "bad news/bad news" story for the Wizards: even if Arenas can play the way that he did prior to getting hurt, I still don't believe that Arenas can be the top player on a team that advances past the second round of the playoffs--and if Arenas never regains his old form then the Wizards will be paying max contract money while getting very little in return.

"SN's 2009-10 Power Poll" also places the Houston Rockets eighth and the Utah Jazz 21st. The Rockets will be without the services of Yao Ming, Ron Artest and, most probably, Tracy McGrady; the makeshift lineup that pushed the Lakers to seven games in the playoffs is not going to look so great over the course of an 82 game season. Injuries to multiple All-Star players are the only reason that the Jazz were not one of the top teams in the West in 2008-09; it is absurd to suggest that with Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur healthy the Jazz will miss the playoffs entirely.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 AM


Stephon Marbury: Insert Your Own Punchline

Stephon Marbury says that collecting roughly $18 million from the New York Knicks for not playing for the team in the 2008-09 season "mentally damaged" him. You cannot make this stuff up; just insert your own punchline--and I'll even give you a head start by quoting a statement Marbury made four years ago: "I'm telling you what it is: I know I'm the best point guard in the NBA. I don't need anybody else to tell me that." Are we supposed to believe that Marbury was not "mentally damaged" when he made that statement?

The best thing that New York Coach Mike D'Antoni did last year--and the thing that I said for years that the Knicks should do--was banish Marbury, even with the Knicks getting nothing in return; this was the ultimate example of "addition by subtraction." The funny thing is that even though the Marbury-less Knicks won nine more games than they did in their scandal-scuttled 2008 season, their 32 victories fell one short of the team's win total in 2006-07--and the reason for that, as I explained near the end of the 2009 season, is that D'Antoni juiced up New York's offense but he did nothing to improve the team's leaky defense. They scored a lot more points and they got off to a 6-3 start by beating teams like Charlotte, Washington, Memphis and Oklahoma City, but they could not guard anyone and down the stretch they fell apart like an old folding chair trying to support the weight of a sumo wrestler: the Knicks went 4-13 in the last month of the season. The Knicks' problem is so obvious that even the admittedly "mentally damaged" Marbury knows what's up: "That system can't win championships. You can't win championships if you don't talk about defense. In Boston, the coaches even play defense.''

Mike D'Antoni is a very good coach. He understands that a coach has to work with the material provided to him; his Steve Nash-led Suns were never going to be a defensive juggernaut, so D'Antoni ramped up the tempo, ran teams off of the court during the regular season--and then suffered annually during the playoffs versus a well-rounded Spurs team that could play offense at any tempo and always played good defense. The Knicks probably did not have the necessary personnel last year to be a great defensive team, so D'Antoni once again floored the accelerator, scored as many points as possible and hoped for the best--but if the Knicks are ever going to rise out of the mediocrity that they have been mired in for nearly a decade then Donnie Walsh must acquire some defensive-minded players and Coach D'Antoni must prove that he is willing and able to implement some kind of effective defensive system.

Everyone understands that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the Knicks is LeBron James--but James knows that ultimately his legacy will be determined by whether or not he wins multiple championships and James also knows that you have to play team defense to win championships. Anyone who thinks that James will go to a team that does not have a defensive mindset is more "mentally damaged" than Marbury is. The Knicks have one year to prove that they are putting together the type of program that can annually contend for titles; otherwise, even if James leaves Cleveland he will certainly not go to New York, because the last thing that James wants is to be on the list of the greatest players who never won a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:52 AM


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Larry Miller: Tar Heel Legend and ABA Single Game Scoring Leader

This article was originally published in the October 2005 issue of Tar Heel Monthly; since that time, L.A. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game versus the Toronto Raptors.

Larry Miller won both the ACC Player of the Year Award and the ACC Tournament MVP in 1967 and 1968 as a Tar Heel, an accomplishment that not even Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo or Michael Jordan matched. North Carolina won most of its games by comfortable margins in 1968, but South Carolina took the Tar Heels to overtime in the ACC Semifinals. Miller played all 45 minutes, scoring 24 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in an 82-79 North Carolina victory.

North Carolina earned an NCAA Tournament bid by crushing North Carolina State 87-50 in the ACC Championship. The 6-4 Miller had 27 points and 16 rebounds in a 91-72 rout of undefeated St. Bonaventure in the NCAA East Regional Semifinals, outscoring and outrebounding Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier (23 points and 9 rebounds). Miller says, "That showed what we had been trying to tell people all year--that we had a really super team. To this day I believe that we had the best team in the country that year, player by player."

After victories over Davidson and Ohio State, North Carolina lost 78-55 to John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins in the NCAA Championship Game. Miller declares, "I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but it came down to this: they asked us what we wanted to do—'Do you want to run?' I said, 'Let’s run with them. We can beat them.' But the decision came out that we didn’t want to run with them. Of course, Alcindor was the greatest player, but I believe to this day that we had more talent than they did."

Miller regrets a missed opportunity when he drove to the basket against Alcindor, the NBA's career scoring leader who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "My first shot of the game I clanked (off the back of the rim) going for a layup. I should have dunked it. Even if it wouldn't have counted (because of the no dunking rule in college basketball at that time), I should have done it just to let them know that I wasn’t scared."

Miller set the ABA's single game scoring record as a member of the Carolina Cougars with 67 points in a 139-125 victory over the Memphis Pros on March 18, 1972. Miller broke Jerry West's mark for most points by a guard in a pro basketball game and to this day only David Thompson (73), Michael Jordan (69) and Pete Maravich (68) have surpassed Miller.

One of Miller's favorite Cougar memories is playing alongside George Lehmann: "If you gave him the ball he could shoot it but he could also pass it. When he was running the fast break, if he didn't shoot the ball he knew that I was on the wing somewhere and then I would get the ball and I could take that one step and take an easy jump shot. That was the best situation I was ever in. Unfortunately, it only lasted about half a season." The financial instability of the league--resulting in constantly shifting rosters, a parade of coaches and uncertainty about getting paid—is a major reason that Miller retired at 28.

Miller missed graduating with his class by one course (he was in L.A. signing his first pro contract during the final exam) but he went back to North Carolina at 38 and got a B.S. in Business Administration. He describes his post-basketball life simply: "I was in the real estate business in North Carolina and Virginia for the past 30 years. Right now I’m just enjoying myself."

Miller recently conducted an online auction of his Catasauqua (Pennsylvania) High School, North Carolina and ABA memorabilia. He says, "I don't think I walked away with a trophy when I left North Carolina. I didn't have anything. They just started sending me things from Carolina, trophies and stuff. I just figured that they didn’t want them…it all ended up in my parents' house." After both of his parents passed away, Miller did not want to keep storing the items and thought that an auction would be a great way to raise money for the Catasauqua Library and for Catasauqua High School.

Miller did not go to any North Carolina games during last year's title run, but hastens to mention, "I was at the '82 one and the '93 one and the '81 one when they lost to Indiana. I didn't go to this one, but my heart was with them, absolutely." He adds, "I've got blue blood…I keep in touch with everybody, all the players and coaches. I'm in contact but I'm just not in the reunion business and I mean that sincerely…I've done my thing and it's over with. It's nothing personal against anybody."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:13 AM


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Etched in Time: George Vlosich III Turns a Child’s Toy into a Unique Sports Collectible

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the November 12, 2004 issue of Sports Collectors Digest under the title "Etch a Sketch Prodigy George Vlosich III Conquers New Worlds".

The answers to the two questions most frequently asked of George Vlosich III are "Hard work and dedication" and "No, it won’t erase if you shake it." Vlosich creates stunningly detailed artwork with an Etch a Sketch and his skills have earned him appearances on TV shows as varied as 20/20 and NBA Inside Stuff. People who see his work for the first time invariably ask, "How do you do that?" and "Will it erase if I shake it?"

Vlosich displayed several of his Etch a Sketch works—including depictions of Tracy McGrady, John Wooden, Cal Ripken and non-sports subjects such as The Andy Griffith Show and the movie Gangs of New York—at the 25th National Sports Collectors Convention held July 21-25, 2004 at the International Exhibition Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Vlosich has been to both previous Nationals in Cleveland. He also went to the National several years back in Anaheim, when Yahoo sponsored an online auction of some of his artwork. Vlosich's choice of subjects is often influenced by the potential opportunity to interact with one of his sports heroes: "A lot of times I do it by commission but sometimes it's like, 'Hey, I'd love to meet Tracy McGrady' and I'm going down to Florida, so I'll try to get a chance to meet him. That's the fun part for me." When Vlosich shows a completed Etch a Sketch to an athlete, the athlete frequently signs the red frame, but don't expect to see those on the market: "All the ones the players autograph—I keep every autograph, I don't sell any of the ones that are autographed. I just keep those for my personal collection."

He adds, "The one thing for me is I've never paid for an autograph. Even through my own work, I've always said that the player should sign it because he wants to sign it and not because I paid him to sign it. So, I've never actually paid for an autograph. That's kind of important to me." His Etch a Sketch work has provided Vlosich the opportunity to not only meet his favorite athletes and collect their signatures, but to obtain other collectibles as well: "I've had a chance to get some pretty neat collectibles. A lot of guys will autograph a ball or a bat or a jersey, which is really neat for me. Again, I keep (those items) for my personal collection and would never sell them. One of the things that I got was a Bulls team ball from the (record tying) 69th win of their 72 win season (1995-96). My brother got a signed ball by the whole team, too, which was just a great thing to have."

Ask Vlosich what the highlight has been so far and his face brightens when he describes his day at the home of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. George's younger brother Greg attended Coach Wooden's basketball camp in California, so the whole Vlosich family got a chance to meet Wooden at the camp. Vlosich had not done an Etch a Sketch of Wooden at that time, but when he mentioned his interest in doing one, the Wizard of Westwood responded very enthusiastically, saying "I'd love to see it." The next year (2000), the whole Vlosich family again traveled to California and Coach Wooden invited them over to his house: "Going up to his house and then seeing Coach Wooden standing at the door waving to us—that's a sight you don't get to see too often! He read poetry to us. He played songs that his players had written and stuff like that. It was just an incredible experience—listening to him talk, his knowledge, his wisdom. It was just awesome. It was a very humbling experience. It was just really cool. Going there, it was like a museum. It was incredible—and the stories he had to share."

Vlosich recalls how his Etch a Sketch career began: "Art has always been a God given talent. I have painted and drawn since I was 2 years old—I would wake up, watch cartoons and draw. One day we were going on vacation to the nation's capital and we stopped to pick up my Mom's old Etch a Sketch…I started playing with it and did the U.S. Capitol Building. When I looked at it when I was done I couldn't believe it and my family was amazed. We felt like, we've got to take a picture of this—you know, my little brother was in the car, he might erase it. We pulled over to a gas station and took a picture of it and that was it. I just kept practicing with it and wanted to see how good I could get."

The 25 year old Vlosich, who works for Cleveland based Wyse Advertising, has been perfecting his craft for more than a decade and a half: "I went to art school and as I got better at drawing I got better at the Etch a Sketch and vice versa, so they just kind of fed off each other…People don't realize that it didn't always look this good. It takes time and practice. You can't just go out there and do it."

Vlosich adds, "When I first started doing them they probably took two hours at the most and I started off doing simple things like Batman, Spiderman, the California Raisins—real easy things, cartoon stuff. The first athlete I did was Cal Ripken (from an image) on a baseball card. I put the name on the bottom and that was the only way you could know it was Cal Ripken. From the progression of getting better, they can take 70-80 hours now."

The increase in time and effort naturally results in a corresponding decrease in productivity: "I probably do, on average, five or six a year that I would sell. People commission me. I try to keep it as limited as possible. I don't want everyone and their brother to have one. It's a unique piece of art and it should stay that way." Vlosich estimates that 75% of his Etch a Sketch works are sports related but he adds, "I'd like to branch out into movies, TV, pop culture kind of things." They range in price from $5-8000 depending on the complexity of the piece. On his website Vlosich sells prints of his Etch a Sketch art; professionally framed and double matted, prices start at $125. He also produces original pencil or acrylic illustrations made to order and lithographs.

It is unlikely that anyone will ever attain the proficiency with an Etch a Sketch that Vlosich has, but even if that were to occur, Vlosich feels that he has something else that sets his work apart: "If anybody ever got as good as I did at Etch a Sketch, I would still have (an edge on) them on design, on overall design. I try to make everything fit in there just so, so that it becomes one unit, one nice image." He credits a lot of his talents in this area to his father, who has many years of experience working in and teaching advertising design.

Of course, none of this would be possible without a way to keep the Etch a Sketch from erasing. While Vlosich taught himself how to create his artwork, Ohio Art—the maker of the Etch a Sketch—told him how to protect his masterpieces from his younger brother, falls off of a countertop and other hazards that typically befall Etch a Sketches: "When I would send (photos of the) artwork to Ohio Art I always kept winning the contest. I just kept winning and finally, they called up and wanted to see if I was really doing this…Some lady came up to the house and brought a bunch of Etch a Sketches with her. She actually watched me do an Etch a Sketch. From that point on they told me how I could actually preserve them and make them permanent. Basically, I remove the back and remove all the powder that is inside. There is aluminum powder, which, when you shake it, sticks to the glass (erasing the previous image) and then the two knobs scratch away the powder that’s on there (to create new artwork)—it’s almost like a negative kind of image. What I do is just remove everything that is inside and screw it back together."

Greg graduated from attending Wooden’s basketball camp to playing for Cleveland State's basketball team and he is an artist as well; he displayed his painting of Tracy McGrady alongside George's Etch a Sketch work at the National. George explains the difference between his work and his brother's: "My brother loves to use watercolors. I haven't perfected that yet and I don't think that I ever will because I’m a little slower in my approach. It's a little like the difference between a fast break style in basketball versus a half court style. You put a color down in watercolors, it's pretty much down and you can't take it up. In oil painting you have a lot of room for mistakes, painting over it, you can make it as thick as you want it. You can just keep painting over it."

If there is one thing that George Vlosich III would like people to understand, it is that—while he feels blessed to have the ability to create Etch a Sketch art and is grateful for the doors that this talent has opened for him—he is more than just the "Etch a Sketch" guy. He is a serious artist who works in traditional media such as oil paintings and pencil illustrations. An art school project to create an ad campaign eventually led to him designing the uniforms for the Cleveland Force professional soccer team. He has donated artwork to an impressive roster of charities—including Akron Children’s Hospital, Muscular Dystrophy, March of Dimes, Jimmy V. Fund and NY 911 Tragedy Fund. Vlosich is very direct about his next goal: "I want to open my own design/advertising studio." He plans to involve his father and his friends in this project, which would incorporate "advertising design, stuff on the computer, logos. I enjoy all that stuff. Hopefully that will happen pretty soon."

Here is a photo of the Vlosich brothers and their father at the home of legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden, plus photos of the Cleveland Force uniform George designed, George's Etches of LeBron James, Allen Iverson and John Wooden and a painting of Tracy McGrady by George's brother Greg.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 AM