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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Improving Cavs Defeat Eastern Conference Champion Magic

Cleveland fans have a tendency to act like the sky is falling. The sky may actually be falling on the hapless Browns, but it is way too early for anyone to express serious concerns about a Cavaliers team that upgraded their roster after winning a league-best 66 games last season. The Cavs' Wednesday night victory in Orlando against the reigning Eastern Conference Champions provided a glimpse of just how potent the Cavs can be offensively and defensively.

In my newest CavsNews article, I analyze what we have seen so far from the Cavs in the first 10% (or so) of the 2009-10 season (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Prior to Cleveland’s 102-93 win over Orlando, ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy said that the “rush to judgment is wrong” about the Cavaliers and that often you cannot tell exactly how good a team is going to be until the regular season hits the 20 game mark. I completely agree with Van Gundy but now that the Cavs have finished nearly 10% of the season (eight games out of 82) it is worthwhile to at least take a preliminary look at what has happened so far. The Cavs are 5-3 and have won five of their last six games after a disappointing 0-2 start; last season at this time the Cavs were 6-2 in the midst of an eight game winning streak that would push their record to 9-2. Prior to the Orlando game, the Cavs ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed, sixth in defensive field goal percentage and were tied for 10th in scoring differential. In 2008-09, the Cavs led the league in points allowed and scoring differential and tied for the league lead in defensive field goal percentage. Although the Cavs have slipped in all three rankings, it is actually an encouraging sign that despite some roster upheaval they still are solidly among the league leaders in those important categories—and based on Coach Mike Brown’s excellent defensive track record there is every reason to believe that the Cavs will finish the season in the top five in all three departments. The Cavs did not have all of their key players available during the preseason, so Coach Brown is still figuring out how to best utilize his newly constructed roster and his efforts in that regard have been hamstrung by the uncertainty surrounding Delonte West, a key player who led the team in minutes played during last year’s playoffs.

Although the Cavs finished with a league-best 66-16 record in 2008-09, they went 1-2 versus the Orlando Magic in the regular season prior to losing 4-2 to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. So, even though it is early in the season and both teams are still putting their rotations together, it was important for the Cavs to beat the Magic on Wednesday; after all, the Cavs clearly made their various offseason moves specifically with the idea of matching up better versus the Magic—and the early returns are quite positive in that regard: Shaquille O’Neal (10 points, four rebounds in 20 minutes) played Dwight Howard (11 points, seven rebounds in 32 minutes) to a virtual standstill, which has to be considered a victory for the Cavs. Howard is obviously Orlando’s best player—and an MVP candidate—while O’Neal is Cleveland’s third offensive option behind LeBron James and Mo Williams. The scoring and rebounding statistics don’t tell the full story of O’Neal’s impact in this matchup; the most significant statistic is that O’Neal drew two fouls on Howard in the first 2:18 of the game. Howard’s foul trouble altered Orlando’s rotations and affected how aggressively Howard could play for the rest of the game.

Although it is only a few months since the Magic eliminated the Cavs from the playoffs, both teams looked a lot different on Wednesday. The Cavs added O’Neal, Anthony Parker (nine points, three steals) and Jamario Moon (0 points, seven rebounds in 15 minutes) in place of Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak but were without the services of West, who was placed on the inactive list for the Orlando game, apparently because he missed the team flight. The Magic added Vince Carter (team-high 29 points), Jameer Nelson (19 points, five assists, four rebounds)—a 2009 All-Star who missed the Eastern Conference Finals due to injury--and Brandon Bass in place of Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Rafer Alston but were missing Rashard Lewis (suspended by the league for using a performance-enhancing drug). Both teams will improve when West and Lewis return but the most important matchup factors are not likely to change: the Magic still have no one who can even slow down James (36 points, eight rebounds, four assists), O’Neal can single cover Howard well enough that the other Cavs can stay at home on the three point shooters and Howard will be prone to getting in foul trouble if he has to single cover O’Neal. Although Howard is an amazing athlete and an impressive physical specimen, he is—as Fred Carter would put it—“light in the cakes” compared to O’Neal; Howard’s broad shoulders and bulging biceps do not make up for his relative lack of lower body heft and that is why he struggles to keep O’Neal out of the paint.

With all of the talk about how the Cavs matched up with the Magic last season and how the Cavs match up with the Magic now, I still stand by what I wrote during and after last year’s playoffs: if Mo Williams had simply played in the Eastern Conference Finals at the level that he did during the regular season then the Cavs would have won the series. On Wednesday, Williams poured in 22 points on 9-9 shooting in the first half, finishing with 28 points on 12-20 shooting. Obviously, Williams should not be expected to shoot 100%--or even 60%--from the field but if he plays aggressively and with confidence then he can create good shots not only for himself but also for his teammates (Williams finished with a game-high six assists).

The bottom line after eight games is that the Cavs are still in the midst of a feeling out process in terms of what the player rotation will be and what each player’s role is offensively and defensively; despite those uncertainties, the Cavs are already playing at a relatively high level. They are deep enough and talented enough that O’Neal does not have to shoulder a heavy burden in terms of minutes and/or field goal attempts and that should enable Coach Brown to keep O’Neal fresh enough to be fully effective during the games that count the most: possible playoff showdowns with Boston and/or Orlando. The Celtics are clearly the best team in the East right now but don’t forget that a Cleveland team sans West and searching for an offensive identity nearly beat Boston in the first game of the season.

One interesting sidebar story from the Orlando game is that James declared that until the season is over he will not answer any more questions about his upcoming free agency status. Frankly, this is a long overdue move on his part, because the only reason that this is such a big story regarding James is that he has encouraged media speculation by (metaphorically) batting his eyelashes at various suitors. Did you know that 2008 MVP/2009 Finals MVP Kobe Bryant will also be a free agent next summer? Bryant will obviously command a maximum contract just like James but because Bryant has steadfastly refused to discuss this subject it has not become a big media story. Everyone understands that James is just entering his prime years and that it makes sense for him to keep his options open but the time for him to handle that business is after the season is over; letting the story fester for so long the way that James did provided a needless distraction to a team that should be focused on nothing other than trying to win a championship and it was disrespectful to the Cleveland fans who cheer for James. In general James has handled himself in an exemplary manner on and off the court, so it is good that he has finally taken steps to silence the talk about the summer of 2010.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:24 PM


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vincent Mallozzi's "Doc": The Ultimate Hack Job

Vincent Mallozzi's Doc: The Rise and Rise of Julius Erving is a quintessential hack job; it is so poorly put together that it redefines the term "hack job" and from now on "Mallozzi" should be considered a synonym for "hack job." Mallozzi's book is touted as "The first complete biography of one of the greatest and most popular basketball players of all time" but the truth is that "Doc" is largely comprised of poorly thrown together quotes and stories from other people's work. Mallozzi contributed very little original content.

It should be illegal to write a biography of Erving without citing/mentioning/praising Marty Bell's classic The Legend of Dr. J: The Story of Julius Erving. Bell's book is vastly superior to Mallozzi's--and Bell's book includes Bell's first hand accounts and Bell's research as opposed to simply retelling other people's stories without proper attribution. Not only does Mallozzi act as if Bell's book does not exist, Mallozzi borrowed/stole heavily from Bell in terms of style and content, particularly when describing Erving's streetball exploits: the first chapter of Bell's book is titled "Me and Julius Down by the Schoolyard," while chapter four of Mallozzi's book is titled "Julius and Dave Down by the Schoolyard." The "Dave" in question is Dave Brownbill, a player who Bell interviewed regarding Erving's early days; Mallozzi simply ripped off Bell's research without any acknowledgment.

As I noted in the comments section of my Del Harris interview, Mallozzi's account of Julius Erving's brief 1972 preseason stint with the Atlanta Hawks consisted mainly of quotes from my exclusive one on one interview with Erving. Mallozzi stated that the quotes came from Basketball Digest but he did not mention my name at all; I suppose that is just as well, because on one of the rare occasions that Mallozzi actually gave credit to the real writers/researchers who produced the majority of the material in his book, Mallozzi repeatedly misspelled Sports Illustrated's Peter Carry as "Peter Garry."

Mallozzi clearly stole his description of Erving's exploits in the 1974 ABA playoffs from my article about Erving's teammate Mike Gale; Mallozzi used a Gale quote from my article without any attribution at all, a standard Mallozzi tactic in this book: Mallozzi is trying to convince the uninformed reader that he did a lot of original research and interviewing when all he actually did is cut and paste quotes/anecdotes from various sources. The ironic thing about this is that Mallozzi is a sloppy plagiarist: In the aforementioned Gale article, I wrote, "Gale averaged 8.3 ppg during the playoffs, ranked third on the team in assists (4.1 apg) and played strong defense" but in the book Mallozzi prefaced my words with the incorrect statement, "In the first championship series," which produces a sentence that is not only redundant--by referring first to the ABA Finals and then to the playoffs as a whole--but also inaccurate, because the numbers that I cited were Gale's playoff numbers, not his Finals numbers (Gale averaged 5 ppg and 4.4 apg in the 1974 ABA Finals).

Mallozzi followed in the footsteps of fellow amateur hour journalist Ming Wong by incorrectly asserting that Julius Erving's famous dunk over Michael Cooper took place in the 1983 NBA Finals; as I explained in April, that dunk happened in a January 5, 1983 regular season game (click on the preceding link to see a highlight of the dunk; that post also contains a link to a brief Sports Illustrated recap of the game that mentions Erving's "majestic dunk over Cooper"). Wong contented himself with a faulty headline over a photo spread in Hoop, but Mallozzi rambled on extensively, providing an entirely fictitious account about how Erving's dunk over Cooper was a key play in game four of the Sixers' sweep of the Lakers. Erving did in fact have a dunk late in that game, but that dunk was a two-handed, solo jaunt to the hoop after stealing the ball from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not a "rock the cradle" special over Cooper (note that Erving dunked over Cooper in the Spectrum while wearing his white home uniform but that Erving wore his red road uniform when he stole the ball from Abdul-Jabbar and dunked in the Forum in game four of the Finals). It is disappointing, frustrating and infuriating that many people will "learn" NBA history from hacks like Mallozzi and Wong instead of from someone who actually takes the time to get the facts straight.

You can watch Erving's game four dunk at the 5:16 mark of this video:

If you saw the Table of Contents for Mallozzi's book online and decided to buy it to read the chapters about Cory Erving and Samantha Stevenson then you surely were disappointed to find out that Mallozzi's coverage of Cory Erving's death consisted mainly of a lengthy quotation from Julius Erving's appearance on Larry King Live! I wonder if Mallozzi received permission to make such an extensive quotation from the show's transcript or if he is liable for copyright infringement. Mallozzi added absolutely no new information. Similarly, Mallozzi's account of Julius Erving's affair with Stevenson simply includes information from articles that any Erving fan has already read. Mallozzi actually filled some space by providing a verbatim account of his brief telephone conversation with Stevenson requesting that she do an interview with him. Stevenson declined even though Mallozzi whined that he is a real journalist just like she is--insert your own punchline here--and that to properly do a book about Julius Erving he needed to speak with her. I wonder if Stevenson gave permission for the contents of this phone call to be published; I would guess not since she made it clear that she did not want to be interviewed by Mallozzi.

I am surprised and disappointed that first class journalist Dave Anderson lent his name to Mallozzi's book by writing the foreword; this is surely the low water mark in Anderson's distinguished career.

Julius Erving did not participate in the production of Mallozzi's book and it appears that the only time that Mallozzi interviewed Erving at all was in 1999, a conversation that did not produce any substantive insights. At the end of the book, Mallozzi gushed that he is a big Erving fan and that he hoped that Erving will enjoy reading the book as much as Mallozzi enjoyed writing it. I doubt that Erving will waste his time reading a book that simply rehashes old articles about him and I don't see why anyone would waste money to buy this book.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:21 PM


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pro Basketball's Almost Scoring Champions

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the January 2003 issue of Basketball Digest under the title "These Seconds Aren't Leftovers."

Karl Malone is to scoring titles what the Buffalo Bills are to Super Bowl victories. In fact, Malone has done the Bills one better. While Jim Kelly's squad lost four times in the NFL's showcase game, Malone has finished second in the NBA scoring race a record five times, trailing Michael Jordan each year.

Malone also holds the mark for most consecutive years as the runner-up (four, 1988-89--1991-92). His other turn as the bridesmaid came in 1996-97. He came closest to winning in 1991-92, losing by 2.1 ppg (28.0 ppg to Jordan's 30.1 ppg). His other losing margins range from 2.2 ppg to 3.4 ppg.

Shaquille O'Neal has lost three of the four closest scoring races since 1969-70, when the NBA began crowning scoring champions based on ppg average instead of total points. Of course, he does have two scoring titles (1994-95 and 1999-00) as consolation. He is also not above using at least one of the near-misses as a motivational tool; Shaq is still peeved about the 1993-94 scoring title, when the L.A. Clippers "held" David Robinson to 71 points in the last game of the season and the Admiral claimed his only scoring championship by .442 ppg. In 1997-98 O'Neal lost to Michael Jordan by an even smaller margin--.427 ppg--but Jordan did not perform any last day heroics to win that title. O'Neal finished second to Allen Iverson by .444 ppg in 1998-99 and 4.2 ppg in 2001-02.

The ultimate final day scoring race shootout occurred on April 9, 1978. David Thompson fired first, posting an astounding 73 points (tied for third highest scoring game ever and the best non-Wilt Chamberlain total) as his Denver Nuggets lost 139-137 to the Detroit Pistons in an afternoon game. Thompson scored a record 32 points in the first quarter and had 53 by halftime. Overall, he scorched the nets with 28-38 field goal shooting and sank 17 of his 20 free throws in 43 minutes. George Gervin's Spurs played the New Orleans Jazz at the Superdome that night and after Thompson's pyrotechnics the Iceman needed 59 points to win the scoring title. Gervin promptly broke Thompson's brand new record by scoring 33 points in the second quarter en route to matching his 53 first half points. Gervin only played 33 minutes in the entire game as the Jazz routed the Spurs 153-132, but he finished with 63 points, edging Thompson by .07 ppg in the closest scoring duel ever. Gervin hit 23 of 49 shots and he also made 17 of 20 free throws. Gervin won three more scoring titles, while Thompson's best finish after that season was fifth in 1980-81.

Rick Barry is the only player to win scoring championships in the NCAA, NBA and ABA and he and Billy Knight are the only players to finish second in scoring in both the ABA and the NBA. Barry won the NBA scoring crown in 1966-67 as a San Francisco Warrior, sat out his option year so that he could jump to the ABA and then won that league's scoring title in 1968-69 while playing for the Oakland Oaks. He followed that with three straight runners-up finishes in the ABA (1969-70--1971-72). After jumping back to the NBA's Golden State Warriors, Barry finished second to Bob McAdoo of the Buffalo Braves in the 1974-75 scoring race. In 1970-71 Barry, then playing for the New York Nets, lost out to the Kentucky Colonels' Dan Issel by .49 ppg, the tightest ABA scoring race ever and the fifth closest in pro basketball history. Barry’s other losing margins ranged from 2.3 ppg to 3.9 ppg.

Billy Knight of the Indiana Pacers lost the final ABA scoring race (1975-76) by 1.2 ppg to Julius Erving of the New York Nets, who averaged 29.3 ppg to capture his third scoring title. After the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger Knight again finished second in scoring, this time trailing Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz (31.1 ppg) by 4.5 ppg. Another notable ABA runner-up is George McGinnis, who finished second to Erving in 1972-73 and 1973-74 before winning his only scoring title the next season. McGinnis joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1975-76 and, although he shared the scoring load with current Wizards head coach Doug Collins (20.8 ppg) and current ESPN NBA analyst Fred "Mad Dog" Carter (18.9 ppg), his 23.0 ppg ranked sixth in the NBA.

During its nine year run (1967-68--1975-76) the ABA always ranked its scoring leaders based on ppg average. However, from 1947-48 until 1968-69 the NBA determined its scoring champion based on total points scored. During that time seven scoring races were decided by less than 150 points. The closest of these saw Max Zaslofsky of the Chicago Stags edge Joe Fulks of the Philadelphia Warriors by 58 points in 1947-48. Technically, this actually occurred in the Basketball Association of America, one of the two forerunners of the NBA, but NBA records consider the final three BAA seasons (1946-47--1948-49) to be the NBA's first three years. The 1947-48 season lasted 48 games, so Zaslofsky's winning margin is equivalent to a little more than 1 ppg.

Paul Arizin of the Warriors won the next closest race of the "total points" era, beating Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks by 62 points in 1956-57. The season had been lengthened to 72 games by this time, so Arizin actually won by less than 1 ppg. Interestingly, in the previous two years Arizin lost the third and fourth closest scoring battles of this period. In 1955-56 Pettit beat him by 108 points and in 1954-55 Arizin's teammate Neil Johnston won by 119 points, claiming the last of his three consecutive scoring titles. Both of those margins are roughly equal to 1.5 ppg. In 1952-53, Johnston claimed his first scoring championship by 122 points over George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, who won three scoring titles in addition to leading the Lakers to five league championships.

The other two scoring races decided by less than 150 points were Mikan over Fulks by 138 points in 1948-49 and the Detroit Pistons' Dave Bing besting Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Lakers by 140 points in 1967-68. That was Baylor's third runner-up finish, the most in the "total points" era. Seven players managed two second-place finishes during this period (Fulks, Alex Groza of the Indianapolis Olympians, Mikan, Arizin, Jack Twyman of the Cincinnati Royals, Oscar Robertson of the Royals and Jerry West of the Lakers).

While the NBA's early years featured several close races for the scoring championship, the emergence of Wilt Chamberlain left everyone else vying for second place until he voluntarily reduced his scoring. Chamberlain captured the scoring title in each of his first seven years (1959-60--1965-66), usually by a substantial amount. In 1961-62 he won the most lopsided scoring race ever, totaling a record 4029 points (50.4 ppg) to beat rookie Walt Bellamy of the Chicago Packers (now the Washington Wizards) by a "mere" 1534 points. This differential is more than twice the size of Jordan's largest victory margin (8.1 ppg in 1986-87).

In the nine ABA and 33 NBA seasons in which scoring leaders have been ranked by ppg average there have been only seven scoring races decided by less than 1 ppg. Five of these have already been mentioned. The other two are Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks over Alex English of the Nuggets by .53 ppg in 1985-86 (the year that Jordan was sidelined for 64 games by a broken foot), and Gervin over the San Diego Clippers' World B. Free by .79 ppg in 1978-79.

Only six players in pro basketball history have finished second in scoring at least three times. They are Karl Malone (5), Rick Barry (4), Shaquille O'Neal (4), Elgin Baylor (3), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (3) and Dominique Wilkins (3). World B. Free (2), Moses Malone (2) and Hakeem Olajuwon (2) round out the list of players with multiple second-place finishes, bringing the NBA/ABA total to 18. Nine of the 18 captured at least one scoring title (Barry, O’Neal, Jabbar, Wilkins, Fulks, Mikan, Arizin, West and McGinnis); Karl Malone, Baylor, Groza, Twyman, Robertson, Knight, Free, Moses Malone and Olajuwon failed to do so.

An old cliché states that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. For the NBA scoring championship, close can also depend on how you count. Jerry West won his only scoring title in 1969-70, averaging 31.2 ppg in the first season that the NBA awarded the crown to the player with the best average, not the most points. That year he beat out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), who outscored West 2361-2309, but played in eight more games for an average of 28.8 ppg. Jabbar was not pleased to be the first player in league history to score the most points and not win the scoring title. However, he avenged this "slight" by scoring the most points and having the highest ppg average in each of the next two seasons.

Pro Basketball's Almost Scoring Champions

Most NBA/ABA 2nd Place Finishes

Player Total

Karl Malone 5
Rick Barry 4
Shaquille O'Neal 4
Elgin Baylor 3
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 3
Dominique Wilkins 3

Closest NBA Races, 1947-1969

Player/Season Margin Winner/Total Points

Joe Fulks/1948 -58 Max Zaslofsky/1007
Bob Pettit/1957 -62 Paul Arizin/1817
Paul Arizin/1956 -108 Bob Pettit/1849
Paul Arizin/1955 -119 Neil Johnston/1631
George Mikan/1953 -122 Neil Johnston/1564
Joe Fulks/1949 -138 George Mikan/1698
Elgin Baylor/1968 -140 Dave Bing/2142

Closest PPG Races--ABA, 1968-1976; NBA, 1970-2002

Player/Season Margin Winner/PPG

David Thompson/1978 .07 PPG George Gervin/27.22
S. O'Neal/1998 .427 PPG Michael Jordan/28.74
S. O'Neal/1994 .442 PPG David Robinson/29.79
S. O'Neal/1999 .444 PPG Allen Iverson/26.75
Rick Barry/1971 ABA .49 PPG Dan Issel/29.88
Alex English/1986 .53 PPG Dominique Wilkins/30.33
World B. Free/1979 .79 PPG George Gervin/29.56

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM