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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Interview with Bob Lanier and NBA Senior VP Kathy Behrens

This article was originally published at Suite101.com on March 16, 2005.

Hall of Famer Bob Lanier averaged 20.1 ppg and 10.1 rpg in his 14 year career, making the All-Star team eight times and winning the All-Star Game MVP in 1974 (24 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocked shots). Lanier was also the MVP of the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game, scoring 15 points in the NBA's 106-104 victory over its younger rival. In 1978 he won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award, foreshadowing the commitment to community service that has characterized his life since his playing career ended in 1984. Before the 2005 All-Star Saturday Night events, Lanier and NBA Senior Vice President Kathy Behrens shared their thoughts about some of the NBA's community service programs.

Behrens: "I'll just talk a little bit about what we’re doing here in Denver. We started on Monday with our 'Read to Achieve Caravan.' Bob led a group of former players, WNBA players and family members of NBA players out to visit two schools here and had a great time. We had reading rallies in both schools, reading to kids and talking about the importance of education. We did 'basketball and books' clinics the next day with some members of the Junior NBA and Junior WNBA programs. We had a WNBA fitness day on Wednesday. We did a basketball clinic for wheelchair bound kids who are part of the 'Junior Rolling Nuggets' program. On Thursday we visited the Children's Hospital of Denver and brought them books, teddy bears—beautiful visit with them, very emotional, very moving, more for our guys than for anybody else."

Lanier: "Yeah, all of the people who went there got just emotionally choked up. I think that's a good word for it, because there are so many children and families who are going through very difficult times and we went there to lift their spirits and then you see some of these kids who are so passionate about life itself. It makes you just say that it's all worth it. That to me—with the legends, NBA players, WNBA players, wives and all of the people in our NBA family caravan—was probably the most special thing that we can do for this week. We do a lot of great things in the community, as she said, but I don't think that anything could top that—putting a smile on those young people’s faces."

Friedman: "How many schools a year, approximately, do you go to in a year with your program?"

Lanier: "We go to schools, community groups, gymnasiums…"

Behrens: "Thousands, because teams are doing events all the time. One of the great things about the program is that so much of it happens at the local level. Players are going out visiting schools, visiting Boys and Girls clubs, just talking to kids and interacting with them, making the words in the books come to life and stressing to them the importance of not just getting an education but developing a love of reading."

Friedman: "Is the work that you do primarily in NBA and WNBA cities?"

Behrens: "It's all over the world, because obviously our game is global and our players come from all over the world, so we've tried to take the program outside of our own borders. That's been one of the great things that we've been able to do, opening a reading and learning center in Soweto in South Africa and opening one in Brazil. Those are the kinds of things that tell you that no matter where you are, you can still have an impact on people."

Friedman (to Lanier): "What is the single greatest moment that you experienced in your playing career?"

Lanier: "Greatest moment? To me—and I know that this might sound a little trite—the greatest moment is that basketball has enabled me to touch other people's lives. I've always been able to do that. Since day one, being an NBA player and visiting a hospital or going to a senior citizens' home and listening to an elderly person who has much more wisdom than I'll ever have and brightening their day and giving my energy. It's something that is very, very special that the NBA has been able to do. It's terrific for me. Kathy talked about seeing our players making words come to life. That is very special because I see them in gyms and community centers with these kids, bright eyed kids draped all around them. They've got their hands on these books that they almost cover up because their hands are so big. Then, the energy that they have by making the words come to life and then going over to a tech center where they get on these computers. It's funny sometimes, because really the kids know more about how to do online stuff than our players, so they end up teaching our players. It's really, really nice.”

Friedman: "What you are saying, in effect, is that being an NBA player, an NBA legend, has given you a platform that you might otherwise not have had to touch people's lives or to touch more people's lives than you might otherwise have reached."

Lanier: "Without question it has given me a platform to touch people's lives all around the world and that’s the perfect ending to this whole thing."

Since this interview took place at an NBA All-Star Weekend event being held in Denver, an original ABA city, it seemed only fitting to conclude by asking Lanier about his participation in the second of two NBA-ABA All-Star Games. Before the interview, I gave Lanier a copy of an article that I wrote about the NBA-ABA All-Star Games for the September-October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest (a magazine which ceased operations at the end of 2004).

Friedman: "What do you remember most about the NBA-ABA All-Star Game and also about the rivalry between the leagues in general?"

Lanier: "I remember that it was a strong rivalry. The only edge I think that the NBA had at the time was that it had more big people of skill. They (the ABA) really were equal or better at the guard and small forward positions. They had some players that could flat out play the game. It was very competitive playing against them. I was quite lucky to be the MVP that year."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 AM


Monday, August 17, 2009

The Art and Science of NBA Defense

This article was originally published on February 2, 2005 at Suite101.com.

The Revolution Will be Televised (and analyzed frame by frame)

NBA defense has reached an unprecedented level of sophistication. Former All-Star Hersey Hawkins says, "I can think about my first year in the league and how detailed scouting reports have become about stopping other teams. By the time I retired (in 2001) I was getting books--15-20 pages on the other team, their sets and what my player likes to do." Videotape was just starting to be used as a scouting tool when Hawkins entered the league in 1989, but now coaches scour footage frame by frame, looking for any individual and team tendencies that can provide an edge.

Johnny Bach, Phil Jackson's "defensive coordinator" on the Chicago Bulls' first three championship teams, has seen a lot of changes during his more than 50 years of college and professional coaching: "I think scouting is far better than it ever was...we have it on DVD and we have it edited. I don't think players had as much information as they have now and I think it contributes to playing the scorers better--deciding who are the scorers and really concentrating on how we're going to push them out a little further (away from their favorite areas). You have so much information available--the statistics alone, then you have the pictorial review that I can produce to a team. What we call 'criticals'--out of bounds plays, what they do after a timeout, what they do when the score's tied, what's the last shot of the quarter--all these things are broken down now."

Coaching staffs use the DVD information to adjust their game plans in the same way that chess masters employ prepared sequences of moves to catch their opponents by surprise. Bach adds, "Believe me, every coach is trying to find something that works well for his team--and on the other bench there is a staff saying, 'You're not going to be able to run exactly what you practiced. We're going to take you out of it.'"

Looking back on his three decades in professional basketball, two-time NBA Executive of the Year (1990, 1997) Bob Bass concludes, "There is no question that defense is really so much better now than it was. I mean, you can't even compare it. We didn't have videotape-we had 16 millimeter film. It is really difficult to break down plays with that. We just didn't have the technology that you have today."

Bass mentions another change that happened in the past 15-20 years: "Coaches got a lot more conservative because they're trying to protect their jobs. When they have total control of the game, they can protect their jobs a lot more." He cites a specific example: "I recall one coach--I won't mention his name. He would be down by 10 with two minutes or something to go. He would never allow his team to shoot three pointers because he would rather get beat by six or eight--sometimes when you come down and fire up a bunch of threes when you are down 10 you can end up getting beat by 20 in those last two minutes. I'll never forget that guy. He did that on a consistent basis." This coach was trying to manufacture a statistical justification--such as a good ranking in team point differential or points allowed--to keep his job even if his team had a losing record.

Observations on the 2004 NBA Finals

Joe Caldwell's tough defense against Hall of Fame guards (including Oscar Robertson) and Hall of Fame forwards (including Julius Erving) earned him two All-Star selections in the NBA and two more in the ABA. Caldwell describes the defensive trap that current Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown implemented when Caldwell played for the ABA's Carolina Cougars: "We let a guy (offensive player) take off by the out of bounds line heading toward his goal, but he's going down the sideline. We had a thing where he'd get to a certain point and then it was up to that guard to make him either turn and come back or go behind his back and when he did that, it was my job--or whoever was in the middle--to shut that position off. They don't do that stuff now. He tried to do it in Detroit. They came close to it, but they're still not fast enough. If L.A. had been playing right they could have beaten them, but they weren't playing right."

Caldwell explains, "L.A. was trying to dribble the ball up. You can't dribble the ball up against that. You have to pass it. They didn't do any of that, right? Fisher wants to dribble it up, right? Kobe wants to dribble it up. I was like, 'What are you doing?'" Caldwell notes that Gary Payton's well documented struggles during the series only compounded the problem for the Lakers: "When he tried to dribble it up, he was dribbling it off his foot or going too fast and he was passing it at the wrong time. That's what the trap does--it makes you do things that you are not supposed to do. So Larry Brown is a master at it. He's been doing it for (over) 25 years."

Caldwell suggests that the Lakers should have countered the trap with quick passes to break down the defense, creating fast break opportunities that would have put a lot of pressure on Piston center Ben Wallace, who served as the last line of defense; Caldwell concludes, "He's not going to block all the shots. He might block (some) in the first half, but in the second half he's going to be too tired."

Speed Kills

Using speed and passing to relentlessly attack the defense is not a new idea. In the 1950s and 1960s the Boston Celtics won championships with a wide open style that encouraged players to adjust to situations on the fly. Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy, the maestro conductor of the Celtic fast break, declares, "Basketball is more of a free-flowing game of instinct and reaction to an action...Normally people associate basketball players with height, but in my judgment speed and quickness are what separate the men from the boys...Every time down the floor is a different situation. Your action is a reaction to what the defender is doing. We (the Celtics) relied primarily on transition rather than set plays. There was always constant movement. We were always trying to impose the maximum pressure on the opponent whether it was on defense or offense."

This year the Phoenix Suns, with Steve Nash orchestrating a relentless fast break attack, embody the "free flowing" game that Cousy loves. The 2005 playoffs should be very interesting--will teams trap Nash and force him to give up the ball early, preferring to concede open jump shots instead of fast break dunks? Will teams disable the Suns' fast break by pounding the small Phoenix team on the offensive glass? Will DVD analysis of the Suns reveal some other weakness that can be exploited?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 PM


Pro Basketball's 100-100 Club

This article was originally published in the April 2002 issue of Basketball Digest; I submitted it with the title "Pro Basketball's Greatest Ball Hawks" but for some strange reason the editor awkwardly renamed it "Basketball's Inside-Out Superstars." I still don't know what that is supposed to mean but in any case it hardly provides an accurate or meaningful description of the subject of the article. Attentive readers will note that I later revisited this subject for NBCSports.com and the editor there used the title that I selected: Pro Basketball's Greatest Ball Hawks.

Great shot blockers do not usually get a lot of steals and the best ball thieves generally do not block many shots. Most blocked shots happen in the paint, which is patrolled by centers and power forwards, while steals frequently occur in the open court and on the perimeter, areas in which smaller, quicker players flourish. It is uncommon for a player to get 100-plus steals and 100-plus blocked shots in one season (only Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Tracy McGrady, Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace did so in 2000-01).

The ABA began recording steals and blocked shots in 1972-73 and the NBA followed suit in 1973-74. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain probably blocked 200-plus shots every season of their careers and may very well have exceeded 100 steals multiple times, particularly in their early years, but both of these Hall of Famers retired before such records were kept. Connie Hawkins almost certainly was a "100/100" player in the ABA and in his first seasons with the Phoenix Suns (he still managed 113 steals and 81 blocked shots in 1973-74 as a 32 year old player on the downside of his career). Jerry West posted 81 steals and 23 blocked shots in only 31 injury riddled games in 1973-74, his final season. West, who frequently blocked post players' shots as a double team defender a la a young Michael Jordan, likely had at least one "200/100" season.

While there is no way to measure the defensive prowess of pro basketball's early players, nearly three decades worth of statistics are enough to demonstrate that the "100/100" Club only admits a handful of members each year. In that period 48 players have joined the "100/100" Club, 25 of whom managed only one such season. Julius Erving is the charter member of the club, totaling 181 steals and 127 blocked shots in 1972-73 as a second year player with the Virginia Squires of the ABA. That season he also founded the "Top Ten" Club, ranking among league leaders in both categories (third in steals and seventh in blocked shots).

The New York Nets acquired Erving before the 1973-74 season and Coach Kevin Loughery employed a pressing, trapping defense to take advantage of Erving's ball hawking skills. The Nets started out 4-1 but lost nine straight as the team found it impossible to effectively maintain full court defensive pressure for four quarters. Loughery pulled back the reins and the Nets rolled all the way to the ABA title. Erving had his only "100/200" season and nearly became the first "200/200" Club member, compiling 190 steals (third in the league) and 204 blocked shots (third in the league).

After racking up 186 steals (fourth in the league) and 157 blocked shots (fourth in the league) in 1974-75, Erving became the first "200/100" Club member in 1975-76 with 207 steals (third in the league) and 160 blocked shots (seventh in the league). Erving continued accumulating "100/100" and "Top Ten" seasons after joining the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976-77. Erving finished his 16 year career with a record 12 "100/100" seasons, missing a 13th in 1977-78 by three blocked shots; he also likely had "100/100" numbers in his rookie season, the year before the ABA began recording steals and blocked shots. His other two non "100/100" seasons came in the last two years of his career.

Erving had a record six "Top Ten" Club seasons and narrowly missed a seventh in 1981-82, finishing 11th in steals by .012 spg. Only three other players have joined him in the "200/100" Club. When he retired in 1987 Erving ranked first on pro basketball's career steals list with 2272 and sixth on the career blocked shots list with 1941; at the start of the 2001-02 season he ranked fourth and 14th respectively.

The 76ers consistently ranked among the NBA's best in points allowed and scoring differential after trading for Bobby Jones, a perennial member of the All-Defensive First Team. Jones posted six "100/100" and two "Top Ten" seasons during his 12 year ABA/NBA career. Jones and Erving combined with Maurice Cheeks (2310 career steals, second all-time at the start of the 2001-02 season) and shot blockers Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins to transform the 76ers from a team that simply tried to outgun the opposition into a formidable defensive team.

Much attention has been deservedly paid to Hakeem Olajuwon's considerable offensive prowess, but his abilities as a defensive player are just as amazing. He tied Erving's record with 12 "100/100" seasons and set the mark for "100/200" years with 11. He also has three "100/300" seasons and two "150/300" seasons; the only other members of those clubs are David Robinson (three-time "100/300" Club member and one-time "150/300" Club member) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (one-time "100/300" Club member).

Olajuwon’s four "Top Ten" seasons are second only to Erving and his three shot blocking titles trail only Abdul-Jabbar and Mark Eaton, who each won four. Olajuwon has ranked in the top ten in shot blocking a record 14 times. Olajuwon is a two time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and in 1988-89 he became the first and only member of the "200/200" Club with 213 steals (sixth in the league) and 282 blocked shots (fourth in the league). This feat will likely never be matched. No center other than Olajuwon has approached 200 steals and the only "midsize" (6-7 or under) players to block 200-plus shots in a season besides Erving are "100/200" Club members Gar Heard and Terry Tyler. Heard blocked 230 shots (sixth in the league) and had 136 steals in 1973-74 for the Buffalo Braves. The Detroit Pistons' Tyler ranked fifth in 1978-79 with 201 blocked shots and moved up to fourth in 1979-80 with 220 blocked shots; he had 104 and 107 steals respectively in those seasons.

Olajuwon is the career professional blocked shots leader (3740 before the start of the 2001-02 season) and ranks seventh on the career professional steals list with 2088. Injuries and age have slowed down Olajuwon and he has not had "100/100" numbers since 1996-97, although he did manage 82 steals and 123 blocked shots in the lockout shortened 50 game 1999 season.

Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen round out the "200/100" Club roster. Jordan is the only two time "200/100" Club member, with 236 steals (second in the league) and 125 blocked shots in 1986-87 and 259 steals (first in the league) and 131 blocked shots in 1987-88, the year that he won his only Defensive Player of the Year Award. Interestingly, his next best shot blocking total was 83 in 1990-91. He has won three steals titles (tied for the most ever with Michael Ray Richardson and Alvin Robertson) and ranked in the top ten in steals nine times. Jordan entered the 2001-02 season third on the professional career steals list (2306).

Pippen, Jordan's teammate on six Chicago Bulls' championship teams, had 211 steals (third in the league) and 101 blocked shots in 1989-90. In 1990-91 Pippen just missed the "200/100" Club, posting 193 steals (fifth in the league) and 93 blocked shots. Pippen had 155 steals and 93 blocked shots in 1991-92 and made one last run at "200/100" with 232 steals (first in the league) and 89 blocked shots in 1994-95. His 2080 career steals rank eighth on the all-time list prior to the 2001-02 season.

Elvin Hayes, Marvin Barnes and David Robinson are the other members of the "Top Ten Club." Hayes, 16th on the career professional shot blocking list with 1771, had his only "Top Ten" Club season in 1974-75, ranking fourth in blocked shots (187) and tenth in steals (158).

Barnes joined the "Top Ten" Club in 1975-76 with the ABA Spirits of St. Louis, blocking 134 shots (sixth in the league) and getting 124 steals (eighth in the league). Barnes was an immensely talented player whose career fizzled due to off-court problems.

Robinson won his sole Defensive Player of the Year Award in his only "Top Ten" Club season, leading the league in blocked shots in 1991-92 (305) and ranking fifth in steals (158). Robinson also won the shot blocking crown the previous year and stood in the sixth position on the career professional blocked shots list at the start of the 2001-02 season (2703).

George Gervin is perhaps the most intriguing member of the "100/100" Club. His detractors would argue that he accumulated his steals and blocks by gambling, frequently giving up easy shot attempts to his opponents. Unfortunately, there is not an individual statistic for points allowed. Each steal and blocked shot that an individual tallies is a tangible victory for his team's defense; whether a gambling defensive style pressures the opponent into mistakes or gives up more scoring opportunities than it foils is a difficult question to answer.

An analogy can be made with Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman. Iverson's critics belittle his prolific scoring totals because of his low field goal percentage; Rodman was frequently accused of not playing good help defense, particularly toward the end of his career, so that he could stay close to the basket and win rebounding titles. The fact that Gervin, Rodman and Iverson played significant minutes on teams that advanced deep in the playoffs strongly suggests that their styles of play were not harming their teams.

Note: the following lists accompanied the original article and thus were compiled prior to the completion of the 2001-02 NBA season.

"100/100" Club

Player Seasons
Julius Erving 12
Hakeem Olajuwon 12
Sam Lacey 7
David Robinson 7
Bobby Jones 6
George Gervin 5
Vlade Divac 5
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 4
Terry Tyler 4
Kevin Garnett 4

Note: List includes all players who totaled 100-plus steals and 100-plus blocked shots in at least four seasons.

"100/200" Club
Player Seasons
Hakeem Olajuwon 11
David Robinson 7
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3
Terry Tyler 2
Patrick Ewing 2
Julius Erving 1
Gar Heard 1
Bob Lanier 1
Elvin Hayes 1
Robert Parish 1

Note: List includes all players who totaled 100-plus steals
and 200-plus blocked shots in the same season.

"200/100" Club
Player Seasons
Michael Jordan 2
Julius Erving 1
Hakeem Olajuwon 1
Scottie Pippen 1

Note: List includes all players who totaled 200-plus steals
and 100-plus blocked shots in the same season.

"Top Ten" Club
Player Seasons
Julius Erving 6
Hakeem Olajuwon 4
Bobby Jones 2
Elvin Hayes 1
Marvin Barnes 1
David Robinson 1

Note: List includes all players who ranked in the top ten in
steals and blocked shots in the same season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:41 AM