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Friday, November 20, 2009

Gilbert Arenas Sought Charley Rosen's Advice--but Did not Follow It

Charley Rosen recently wrote an interesting account of how Gilbert Arenas responded to some of Rosen's critiques of Arenas' game:

A couple of years back, one of the Wizards public relations staff called in response to my pointing out that Gilbert Arenas tended to turn his head on defense and was burned by two or three backdoor plays every game. Arenas wanted to know, the PR guy said, what he could do to prevent this, and what other pieces of his game I thought could be improved.

Although this was the provenance of his coaches, the PR guy diligently took notes as I discussed how to avoid being back-doored. Actually, it's just by adhering to a fundamental defensive principle--open up until you can see both the ball and your man. If the specific angles prohibit this, then watch the ball while keeping some physical connection--a hand on the nearest hip will do--with your man.

Anything else?

I talked about Arenas' shot selection, and his frequent domination of the ball.

Anything else?

Yes. I wasn't particularly fond of the way Arenas spun the basketball prior to releasing his free throws. Remembering how Arenas had botched a pair of last-second free throws that cost the Wiz a playoff game against the Cavs back in 2006, the PR person was eager to relay my advice to Arenas.

The problem with spinning the ball the way Arenas does is that he doesn't end up with the same grip as he prepares to shoot. Sometimes his fingers are aligned with the seams and sometimes not. And shooting free throws is all about duplicating the same pre-shot posture and preparation, the same grip, the same rhythm, and the same stroke on every shot. Even the slightest variation requires a slight adjustment that destroys the groove the shooter seeks to maintain.

As good a natural shooter as he is, Arenas should also be at least five percentage points higher than his lifetime free-throw accuracy of 80.9 percent--77.3 percent in the playoffs. Paying more attention to being consistent rather than flashy was the answer.

OK! Arenas would be thrilled to hear all of this. Thanks.

Glad to be of help.

The next time the Wizards played, I zeroed in on Arenas' defense.

Nope, he still lost visual and physical contact with his man in order to follow the bouncing ball.

Nope, he still massaged the ball too much and took bad shots.

Ah, but on his first trip to the stripe, he avoided circling the ball around his waist and made sure that his hands were in optimum position on the ball before releasing his shot--which hit the rim softly, made two complete circles, and then dropped off.

On his second free throw, Arenas was back to his great-circle routine. The shot was good.

The experiment was over forever.

So far this season, he's shooting 72.9 percent from the stripe.

The Sporting News--and others--declared that Arenas' healthy return would transform the Washington Wizards into serious Eastern Conference contenders; I predicted that the Wizards would merely go back to being what they have always been when Arenas was healthy: a lower level playoff team. So far, the Wizards have not even met my expectations, compiling a 3-7 record that places them six games behind the Southeast Division-leading Atlanta Hawks in the Southeast Division and just a half game ahead of the cellar dwelling Charlotte Bobcats (who have performed worse than I expected and have already significantly changed their roster by acquiring the volatile Stephen Jackson). There is apparently a mainstream media rule against criticizing the popular Arenas, so his defenders are quick to assert that Arenas is not really himself yet and that he has not fully recovered from the knee injuries/surgeries that cost him the better part of the past two seasons. I agree that the "eyeball test" shows that Arenas does not have quite the same explosiveness that he did a couple years ago--but the numbers show that he is essentially the same player that he has always been. Here are his averages this season after 10 games, with his career averages listed in parentheses:

36.8 mpg (37.3), 22.9 ppg (22.8), 7.6 FGM/g (7.3), 19.3 FGA/g (17.2), .394 FG% (.426), 2.1 3FGM/g (2.1), 5.3 3FGA/g (5.8), .396 3FG% (.359), 5.6 FTM/g (6.0), 7.6 FTA/g (7.4), .737 FT% (.807), 3.8 rpg (4.2), 6.5 apg (5.5 apg), 1.2 spg (1.7), 4.2 TO/g (3.3).

The main difference in Arenas' game so far is that his reaction to his lower field goal percentage is to jack up a couple more shots per game. He has always been an erratic, inefficient player; that has not changed and it is not likely to change. Arenas is not entirely to blame for Washington's disappointing start; the Wizards missed the contributions of Antawn Jamison, who just scored 31 points in his season debut--a victory over Cleveland--after sitting out the first nine games because of a shoulder injury. Assuming that Jamison stays healthy, the Wizards will likely rally to finish above .500, some fools will say that Arenas deserves All-NBA (or even MVP) consideration and then the Wizards will get blasted in the first round and we will not have to hear about them until next fall.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:01 PM


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Champions Club: Pro Basketball's Dynasties by the Numbers

This article was originally published in the May 2003 issue of Basketball Digest.

Last year, five-time NBA champion Magic Johnson and two-time NBA champion Kenny Smith needled fellow TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley by transforming the network's studio into a faux "champions club" that only admits people who have won championship rings. Of course, this meant that Sir Charles, Lord of the Ringless, could not come in, while such notables as Fennis Dembo and Jack Haley were members with privileges.

However, there is another "Champions Club" that is so exclusive that even Magic Johnson and Kenny Smith would not find their names on the VIP list. This club consists of teams that have won at least three straight titles: George Mikan's Lakers, Bill Russell's Celtics, Michael Jordan's Bulls and Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers.

Mikan, the Minneapolis Lakers' 6-10, 245 pound Hall of Fame center, was voted the greatest player of the first half of the twentieth century. He led the Lakers to five championships in a six-year period, including the NBA's first "three-peat" from 1951-52--1953-54. While Mikan was the dominant force on those teams, he also had some outstanding teammates--forwards Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelson and guard Slater Martin are also in the Hall of Fame, as is Coach John Kundla. Another Hall of Famer, Clyde Lovellette, was a rookie contributor for the 1953-54 titlists and eventually succeeded Mikan as the team's center.

The Lakers' status as the NBA's first dominant team is unquestioned. If Mikan had not suffered a hairline ankle fracture before the 1950-51 playoffs the Lakers would likely have won six straight championships. How they would have fared against the great teams of subsequent decades is much more difficult to assess; they literally played under a different set of rules. Before the 1951-52 season the NBA widened the lane from six feet to 12 feet to counteract Mikan's dominance. This change cost Mikan the scoring title (his average dropped from 28.4 ppg to 23.8 ppg) but it did not stop the Lakers as a team. They adjusted by improving their outside shooting and also by flashing cutters through the wide-open lane. In 1964-65 the NBA widened the lane again, this time to 16 feet (its current size) in response to the amazing scoring prowess of Wilt Chamberlain.

Before the 1954-55 season the NBA made its most dramatic rules change, the introduction of the 24-second shot clock. This eliminated stalling and made it tougher for the Lakers to simply wear down teams in the half-court. Mikan retired before that season and his unsuccessful comeback in 1955-56 (10.5 ppg in 37 games) suggests that he struggled once the league sped up the game. The Lakers adapted admirably to the initial widening of the lane, but the temptation is to take one look at the old black and white films and dismiss the notion that Mikan's teams could compete with the modern NBA champions. That may be a hasty judgment. While the Lakers did not display many flashy moves and preferred a half-court style to take advantage of Mikan in the post, the team possessed plenty of athleticism. "All of us could dunk except Slater Martin," noted Mikkelson. "But we weren't allowed to much, because Kundla wouldn't let us. It was frowned on as hotdogging."

Mikan's "three-peat" Lakers posted worse winning percentages in both the regular season and Finals than the other teams that won at least three consecutive championships. Pro-rated to an 82 game season, their .644 winning percentage equals about 53 wins per year, while the other dynasties won at a .736 clip or better (equivalent to more than 60 wins in an 82 game season). This does not prove who would win a hypothetical head-to-head match-up, but it suggests that the Lakers did not dominate their era as convincingly as the other dynasties did. Some of this may be explained away by the inherent competitiveness of the league, which had not been diluted by expansion and had less than a third as many franchises as today's NBA. On the other hand, the 1950s NBA did not draw upon the deep worldwide talent pool that feeds the modern NBA.

The NBA did not have to wait long after Mikan's retirement for the next dynasty to emerge. The Boston Celtics were a solid playoff team during most of the 1950s but they instantly became a powerhouse in 1956-57 with the arrival of Bill Russell, a 6-10, 220 pound rebounding and shot-blocking wunderkind. Russell provided strength in the paint and accelerated the Celtics' already potent fast-break offense; now the forwards could leak out early, confident that Russell would deny the opponent's forays into the paint, corral the rebound and fire the outlet pass to Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy.

Like Mikan, Russell was blessed to have a Hall of Fame Coach in Red Auerbach and several Hall of Fame teammates: Cousy, his backcourt mate Bill Sharman, 1957 Rookie of the Year Tom Heinsohn (Russell played only 48 games, joining the team after the 1956 Olympics) and pioneering sixth man Frank Ramsey. This group won Boston's first NBA title in 1957. Boston's chances for a repeat performance took a major hit when Russell suffered an ankle injury in the 1958 Finals. With Russell hobbled, Bob Pettit scored 50 points in game six as the St. Louis Hawks took the championship. "You can always look for excuses. We just got beat," declared Auerbach.

In any case, the Celtics proceeded to win the next eight championships. Along the way more Hall of Famers joined the squad, including Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and John Havlicek--but Russell was the one constant throughout the unparalleled string of titles. It took one of the greatest teams in NBA history--the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers led by Chamberlain--to snap the streak and the Celtics recovered from that setback to win the next two championships before Russell retired.

Russell's Celtics do not hold records for point differential or winning percentage. They were pushed to the seventh game of the NBA Finals three times during their "eight-peat" and also survived several seventh game showdowns in the Eastern Division Finals. The Celtics' dominance is defined by their relentless, single-minded accumulation of championship hardware. Bill Russell has a championship ring for each finger, plus a ring to spare--what more needs to be said?

After Russell left the scene the NBA did not have a repeat champion for almost 20 years. It seemed that free agency and the addition of more rounds to the playoffs made back-to-back titlists an outdated concept. Then, L.A. Lakers' Coach Pat Riley guaranteed a repeat during the Lakers' 1987 championship celebration and the team made good on his promise, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuffing a towel in Riley's mouth before he could predict a third straight triumph. In fact, the Lakers came close to the "three-peat," going 11-0 in the 1989 playoffs before being swept in the Finals by Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons. The Pistons repeated in 1990 but their "three-peat" dreams were derailed by Jordan's Bulls.

The 1991-1993 Bulls became the first NBA team to win three straight titles since Russell's Celtics. The Houston Rockets claimed back-to-back championships during Jordan's foray into minor-league baseball and then the Bulls accomplished a second "three-peat" in 1996-1998 after Jordan returned to hoops. The two Chicago "three-peats" shared three constants--Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson--but are distinct in many ways.

The first team was young and frisky, athletically trapping all over the court and showcasing Jordan and Pippen at their high-flying best. Pippen ran the offense as a "point-forward," while nominal point guards John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong provided long-range marksmanship. Power forward Horace Grant was athletic enough to trap guards in the backcourt and recover to pick up his man in the frontcourt.

The second team replaced power forward Horace Grant with rebounding savant Dennis Rodman. Sixth man Toni Kukoc provided scoring punch, while Ron Harper added size in the backcourt. Jordan and Pippen were not quite as athletic and the team frequently won as much on savvy and will as anything else.

When Jerry Krause broke up the Chicago Bulls to begin what columnist Jay Mariotti derisively calls the "Organizations Win Championships Tour," Jordan, Pippen and Jackson went their separate ways. Jackson took a one-season sabbatical before resurfacing in Los Angeles. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have chafed at times when Jackson upbraids them, but there is no arguing with the results: three titles in three years.

Numerologists may find some significance in the fact that each of Jackson's "three-peat" units posted 45-13 records in the playoffs. Basketball historians single out a different number: 15-1, the Lakers' record setting playoff won-loss record in the 2001 title run. There is a perception that the Lakers coast during the regular season and "turn it on" in the playoffs, but the Lakers' .736 regular season winning percentage matches Russell's Celtics and is just slightly worse than the 1991-93 Bulls.

This year the Lakers have fought an uphill battle just to earn a playoff berth, but that is primarily because of O'Neal's health, not coasting. Despite their ups and downs, they are the proverbial team that no one wants to face in the postseason. If the Lakers find the wherewithal to sustain one more title run, they will become the only team other than Russell's Celtics to win at least four consecutive NBA championships and Jackson will claim his tenth title as a coach, breaking his tie with Auerbach. Add that to Jackson's ring as a player on the 1973 Knicks and he would join Russell in the ultimate "Champions Club": no admittance without 11 rings.

Champions Club

Years Team Reg. Season Playoffs NBA Finals

1952-54 Min. Lakers 134-74/.644 27-11/.711 12-7/.632
1959-66 Bos. Celtics 461-165/.736 67-33/.670 32-14/.696
1991-93 Chi. Bulls 185-61/.752 45-13/.776 12-5/.706
1996-98 Chi. Bulls 203-43/.825 45-13/.776 12-6/.667
2000-02 L.A. Lakers 181-65/.736 45-13/.776 12-3/.800

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 AM