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Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Did Kobe Bryant Really Become a Team Player?

I just read an interesting article about Kobe Bryant; the tag line declares in part, "Kobe Bryant has grown into a consummate team player." The writer adds, "Not only does he score, but he also initiates the Lakers' attack and has developed into a fierce defensive stopper" and he quotes Larry Brown, who calls Bryant "a model" of what an NBA player should be. One of Bryant's teammates says of Bryant, "He doesn't make his game a personal game anymore. You don't see him doing the things on the floor that used to get him in trouble and get us in trouble." That teammate also asserts that Bryant made a greater effort to mingle with his teammates away from the court but Bryant disagrees with that: "If you ask me, I acted the same way my first few years, but for some reason the perception is different this year. If I'm doing something that makes them feel more comfortable around me, then I'm happy about that."

This is all stuff that you have heard before, right? You bet you have heard it before--nine years before to be exact! Those quotes did not come from an article about the Lakers' 2009 championship; they come from a Sports Illustrated article that Phil Taylor wrote in April 2000, a few months before Bryant won the first of his four NBA championships! That is why it is so funny--and yet so sad--that there has been so much written and said recently about Bryant allegedly just learning to "trust his teammates," becoming a better/more willing passer and interacting more closely with his teammates away from the court; all of that stuff about Bryant suddenly changing is nonsense.

Bryant came into the NBA as a raw 18 year old straight out of high school who had a lot to learn about the NBA game--but by his fourth season he had emerged as one of the league's top players, a dynamic scorer who also was a great playmaker and a lockdown defender. Whatever awkwardness may have existed between Bryant and some of his teammates--largely due to him being a high school kid while they were grown men--had mostly vanished by 2000. Unfortunately, many sportswriters are either too ignorant, too lazy or too biased to write the truth, so they regurgitate their favorite themes over and over. Taylor is a solid writer and he described Bryant's transformation nine years ago when it was actually a newsworthy story--but the hacks who are getting paid now by asserting that Bryant just changed are ripping off the publications that are paying them and the general public that wastes time reading their ignorant words.

Bryant has been a great, mature player for nearly a decade. What changed in L.A. the past two seasons is that the Lakers' front office gave him some more help; Bryant does not have as much help as some people like to say, mind you--the 2009 Lakers had a weaker roster than most of the championship teams from the past two decades--but Bryant no longer has to go into battle with starters who barely belong in the league (Smush Parker, Kwame Brown).

As I have mentioned before, assist totals have to be taken with a grain of salt and Bryant has astutely noted, "There is more to making your teammates better than just passing them the ball. You have to teach them a lot of the things that you know, the way that you prepare for the game. There are so many different levels to making guys better." However, whether you judge Bryant's playmaking purely by his assist totals or you take a broader, skill set based view, it is clear that he transformed himself as a playmaker quite some time ago, not just in the past two years as some people insist. Bryant's apg average made its first big jump in 2000: he played roughly the same amount of mpg that he had in the previous season, but he averaged 4.9 apg compared to 3.8 apg in 1999. Bryant ranked third on the Lakers in apg in 1999 but led the team in that category in 2000 and he has led the Lakers in apg every season since then except for 2004 (Gary Payton) and 2006 (Lamar Odom). Ironically, Bryant's apg averages the past two years--when the ignorant pundits claim that he learned to "trust his teammates"--are only the fourth and eighth highest of his 13 year career; Bryant averaged a career-high 6.0 apg in the 2004-05 season, a time when he was being blasted left and right for supposedly running Shaquille O'Neal out of town and not passing the ball to anyone.

It always amazes me that some people actually think that Shaquille O'Neal single-handedly carried the Lakers to three championships while Bryant was going through some kind of version of NBA puberty on and off the court; the reality is that Bryant's emergence as an elite player in his own right--and the hiring of Phil Jackson as coach--directly correlated with the Lakers' ascension to the top of the league. The subsequent "feud" between O'Neal and Bryant had nothing to do with Bryant being selfish or not knowing how to "trust his teammates"; as I wrote earlier this year, "O’Neal injured his big toe but declared that since he got hurt 'on company time' he was entitled to get surgery and heal 'on company time.' So he enjoyed himself during the summer of 2002, had the surgery late, missed 15 games and took his time getting back into shape. As a result, the Lakers did not have homecourt advantage in the playoffs and eventually fell to the Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. O'Neal’s conduct escalated his conflict with Bryant, who became the team's leading scorer; O'Neal declared that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint), to which Bryant pointedly retorted that O'Neal needed to get in shape so that he could run down the court, because Bryant had no intention of walking the ball up and waiting for him." By the time O'Neal returned to the lineup and struggled to get back into shape, Bryant had clearly become the number one option on the team, averaging 40.6 ppg on .472 field goal shooting in February 2003. While Bryant proved as early as the 2000 season that he could fill the playmaking role on a championship team, O'Neal immaturely chafed at Bryant's rising status during the 2003 season. O'Neal's poor work ethic and his subsequent petty jealousy of Bryant's record-setting scoring run led to the Lakers' downfall and weighed heavily on owner Jerry Buss' mind when O'Neal publicly screamed at Buss during the 2003 preseason, "Pay me!" As Lamar Odom is learning now, Buss keeps his own counsel about just how much money he is willing to pay players.

All of the recent talk about Bryant learning to "trust his teammates" completely misses the point; in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons, Bryant's teammates were not "trustworthy" and in most cases the Lakers were better off with Bryant shooting the ball instead of passing it: in fact, over the entire course of Bryant's career, the Lakers have a better winning percentage when Bryant scores more than 40 points (.677) than when he scores fewer than 40 points (.656)--and that was especially true in 2006, when the Lakers went 45-37 overall (.549) but 18-9 (.667) when Bryant scored at least 40 points. Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson publicly said at that time that the Lakers needed for Bryant to score a lot of points just for the team to remain competitive, so when Bryant won scoring titles in 2006 and 2007 he was doing exactly what Jackson wanted him to do.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:40 AM


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Evolution of Cleveland's Roster Since 2007

The Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to the NBA Finals in 2007 but GM Danny Ferry did not rest on his laurels; instead, he traded away starters Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes plus reserves Donyell Marshall and Shannon Brown in exchange for Ben Wallace and Joe Smith. That move made the Cavs older but added frontcourt depth and versatility. Holdouts by Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic--and Pavlovic's subsequent injuries--prevented the Cavs from completely jelling in 2008 but they still pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the playoffs. Ferry then acquired point guard Mo Williams and the Cavs raced to the best record in the NBA in 2009, only to fall to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Ferry promptly reloaded for the 2010 season by acquiring Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker, while signing an offer sheet for restricted free agent Jamario Moon (the Miami Heat still have the opportunity to match that offer and retain Moon).

In my newest CavsNews article, I examine just how much Ferry has upgraded Cleveland's roster in the past two years (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

In 2007, the Cavaliers surprised many pundits—but not this writer—by making it to the NBA Finals, where a veteran San Antonio Spurs team promptly swept them. The Cavs had perhaps reached the championship round “a year early,” but rather than stand pat to see if that group could return to the Finals, General Manager Danny Ferry soon blew up the roster, adding more depth and versatility. Injuries and holdouts prevented the Cavs from completely jelling in 2008 but the new unit--buoyed by the addition of Mo Williams—posted the best record in the NBA in 2009 and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

True to form, this summer Ferry has again made aggressive moves to strengthen the roster, acquiring Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Parker while discarding Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic. Joe Smith and Wally Szczerbiak are not certain to be back; youngsters J.J. Hickson, Tarence Kinsey and Darnell Jackson could work their way into the rotation and/or Ferry may yet make additional trades/free agent signings.

Now is a good time to take a detailed look at exactly how significantly Ferry has changed Cleveland’s roster since the team’s 2007 trip to the NBA Finals.

Here are the top 10 players in Cleveland’s playoff rotation from the past three years (based on mpg):

2007 Playoffs

LeBron James 44.7 mpg
Larry Hughes 35.5 mpg
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 32.5 mpg
Sasha Pavlovic 30.8 mpg
Drew Gooden 30.3 mpg
Anderson Varejao 22.4 mpg
Daniel Gibson 20.1 mpg
Eric Snow 12.8 mpg
Damon Jones 12.6 mpg
Donyell Marshall 10.7 mpg

2008 Playoffs

LeBron James 42.5 mpg
Delonte West 34.8 mpg
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 30.2 mpg
Wally Szczerbiak 28.8 mpg
Daniel Gibson 25.8 mpg
Ben Wallace 23.4 mpg
Joe Smith 20.2 mpg
Anderson Varejao 18.5 mpg
Sasha Pavlovic 13.9 mpg
Devin Brown 11.5 mpg

2009 Playoffs

Delonte West 42.2 mpg
LeBron James 41.4 mpg
Mo Williams 38.6 mpg
Anderson Varejao 30.0 mpg
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 29.1 mpg
Joe Smith 16.7 mpg
Wally Szczerbiak 12.8 mpg
Ben Wallace 12.6 mpg
Daniel Gibson 12.3 mpg
Sasha Pavlovic 8.3 mpg

Cleveland’s increased depth has enabled the coaching staff to give more rest to LeBron James, whose playoff mpg decreased from a team-high 44.7 mpg in the 2007 playoffs to 42.5 mpg in the 2008 playoffs to 41.4 mpg in last season’s playoffs, when James ranked second to Delonte West. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has also seen his minutes decline slightly as forward/center Anderson Varejao assumed a much more significant role. Daniel Gibson made a name for himself with his clutch shooting in 2007 and moved up to fifth in playoff mpg in 2008, but injuries—and the addition of Mo Williams--limited Gibson to just 12.3 mpg in the 2009 playoffs. James, Ilgauskas, Varejao and Gibson are the only players who ranked in the top ten in playoff mpg for the Cavs each of the past three seasons.

Larry Hughes was James’ “sidekick” in 2007, first playing shooting guard and then shifting to point guard so that Sasha Pavlovic could start at shooting guard. When injuries sidelined Hughes in the last two games of the Finals, Gibson started at point guard. Just two years later, both Hughes and Pavlovic are no longer on the roster and Delonte West is firmly entrenched as the starting shooting guard.

One obvious indicator of just how much depth Ferry has added to the roster is that Pavlovic and Gibson combined to average more than 50 mpg for the 2007 Finalists but barely played 20 mpg in last year’s playoffs. The 2007 and 2008 teams did not have a legitimate, top flight point guard, but the 2009 squad featured Mo Williams, who earned his first All-Star selection; Williams may not be a prototypical pass first point guard but—unlike Hughes—Williams is not playing out of position and he is a much better long range shooter than Hughes.

Three of the top six players from the 2007 playoff rotation—including Hughes plus two players who started in the Finals, Pavlovic and Gooden—are no longer on the team; in 2009, their roles were filled by Williams, West and Varejao. The signing of free agent Anthony Parker means that the Cavs are deeper than ever on the perimeter, as Williams, West and Parker are all proven shooters. West and Parker are also good defenders, while Williams—who was not previously known for his defense—earned raves from the coaching staff last year for his work at that end of the court.

The Cavs’ three man rotation of bigs changed from Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao in 2007 to Ilgauskas-Wallace-Smith in 2008 to Varejao-Ilgauskas-Smith in 2009. With the addition of Shaquille O’Neal this summer, Cleveland’s new three man rotation of bigs will be O’Neal-Ilgauskas-Varejao. The talent upgrade since 2007 is clearly evident: O’Neal will have more of an impact than Gooden did and Varejao is a better player now than he was in 2007, while Ilgauskas has remained consistently productive for the past several years. The only cautionary note regarding the frontcourt is that under Ferry’s watch this group is getting older (Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao had an average age of just under 27 in 2007, while O’Neal-Ilgauskas-Varejao have an average age of more than 32); it remains to be seen if Ferry will be able to draft/acquire/develop adequate younger replacements for O’Neal and Ilgauskas.

During last year’s playoffs, TNT commentator Mike Fratello noted that the Cavs had at least 10 players on their roster who had been starters for playoff teams at one point in their careers. That statement is still true now but the current Cavs team matches up better—at least on paper—with the league’s other top contenders such as the Lakers, Magic and Celtics. If Ferry succeeds in prying restricted free agent Jamario Moon away from the Miami Heat, then the Cavs will add yet another player to the mix who has started for a playoff team and has the length and athletic ability to defend top notch wing players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 AM