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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Midwest Division "Dream Teams"

The January 2003 issue of Basketball Digest included a special section of "Dream Teams"--the best players in the history of each NBA franchise. Although the table of contents for that issue said that the selections had been made "by the editors of Basketball Digest," the truth is that Basketball Digest had one editor, Brett Ballantini, and he split up the task based on the divisional alignment at that time: I wrote about the seven Midwest Division teams, with Barry Wilner (Atlantic), Tom Kertes (Pacific) and Ballantini (Central) handling the rest of the assignment. Basketball Digest published the articles in alphabetical order by team name without giving any indication about who actually wrote the various stories.

Here are the seven team profiles that I wrote exactly as I submitted them, sans a few editorial "improvements"; usually Ballantini had the good sense to not touch my copy but in this case he eliminated the thumbnail remarks (in parentheses) about individual player accomplishments--which I had inserted in order to include extra information without exceeding the 330 word count maximum for each team--and he also made a few odd changes to some of the team stories:

Dallas Mavericks

1st Team
F Dirk Nowitzki (Two All-NBA selections)
F Mark Aguirre (Franchise record 29.5 ppg, 1983-84)
C James Donaldson (Fourth in the NBA in FG%, 1986-87)
G Michael Finley (Five 20-plus ppg seasons)
G Rolando Blackman (Four-time All-Star)

2nd Team
F Jay Vincent (All-Rookie Team, 1981-82)
F Sam Perkins (All-Rookie Team, 1984-85)
C Roy Tarpley (Sixth Man Award, 1987-88)
G Derek Harper (Franchise career assists and steals leader)
G Jason Kidd (Co-Rookie of the Year, 1994-95)

Coach: Dick Motta (Franchise career wins leader)
Best Player: Nowitzki
Best Team: 1987-88 (53-29, Western Conference Finals)

The Dallas Mavericks will always be remembered as the model expansion franchise. Dallas took its lumps in year one (15-67 in 1980-81) but made steady progress in the following seasons, culminating in a seven game loss to the defending champion Lakers in the 1988 Western Conference Finals. At this point the script flipped from "That Championship Feeling" to "Nightmare at Reunion Arena." What happened? First, drug addiction wrecked the career of Roy Tarpley, the 1987-88 Sixth Man Award winner who seemed to be on the verge of becoming a superstar. Second, midway through the 1988-89 season the Mavs traded Mark Aguirre, the team's leading scorer the previous six seasons, to the Detroit Pistons for Adrian Dantley. Aguirre had often feuded with his coaches and teammates, many of whom publicly expressed how happy they were to see him go. Aguirre was soon smiling as well: his teams won 55 of the 80 games he played in that year; Dantley was only 41-32 even though he spent more of the season with the superior squad (the Pistons). Aguirre played a key role on the Pistons' back to back championship teams, while Dallas missed the playoffs in 1988-89, exited the first round in a three game sweep in 1989-90, and plummeted to the draft lottery for the next ten years. Owner Mark Cuban and Coach Don Nelson have recently revived the team's fortunes and the Mavericks are once again viable contenders.

Denver Nuggets

1st Team
F Alex English (Three All-NBA selections)
F Spencer Haywood (ABA MVP and Rookie of the Year, 1969-70)
C Dan Issel (Seven 20-plus ppg seasons as a Nugget)
G David Thompson (73 points in one game, highest non-Chamberlain total)
G Ralph Simpson (Three All-ABA selections)

2nd Team
F Kiki Vandeweghe (Three 20-plus ppg seasons as a Nugget)
F Bobby Jones (Four All-Defensive Team selections as a Nugget)
C Dikembe Mutombo (Three-time NBA shot blocking leader as a Nugget)
G Lafayette Lever (Two-time All-Star)
G Larry Jones (Three All-ABA selections)

Coach: Larry Brown (Two 60-plus win seasons)
Best Player: English
Best Team: 1975-76 (60-24, ABA Finals)

The Denver Rockets (they became the Nuggets in 1974-75) were one of the ABA's original teams in 1967-68. Two years later, 20 year old rookie Spencer Haywood enjoyed the greatest single season in franchise history, winning the MVP, the Rookie of the Year, the scoring title (30.0 ppg) and the rebounding title (19.5 rpg). Haywood jumped to the NBA Seattle Supersonics after his spectacular debut and the ensuing legal battles led to the demise of the "four year" rule, the NBA's restriction against signing players before their college class had graduated. Incidentally, those who think that Haywood's ABA numbers are "inflated" should note that many great players post their highest rebounding averages early in their careers and that Haywood averaged 26.2 ppg and 12.7 rpg in his first full NBA campaign and 29.2 ppg and 12.9 rpg the next season. Larry Brown coached Denver to four straight first place finishes (two in the ABA and two in the NBA's Midwest Division). His 1975-76 team was the class of the ABA; in the midseason All-Star Game the Nuggets played the best players from the other teams in the league and won! Denver seemed to be a shoo-in for the championship, but a superhuman Finals performance by Julius Erving (37.7 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg) carried the New York Nets to the ABA's last title. Hall of Famers Alex English and Dan Issel led the way for Denver during the '80s, when the team perennially qualified for the playoffs but always fell short of the NBA Finals.

Houston Rockets

1st Team
F Elvin Hayes (Scoring champion, 1968-69)
F Ralph Sampson (Rookie of the Year, 1983-84)
C Hakeem Olajuwon (Two-time Finals MVP)
G Calvin Murphy (Franchise career assists leader)
G Clyde Drexler (20.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 5 apg in 1995 playoffs)

2nd Team
F Rudy Tomjanovich (Five-time All-Star)
F Otis Thorpe (Second in the NBA in FG% in 1991-92)
C Moses Malone (Two MVPs and three rebounding titles as a Rocket)
G Steve Francis (Co-Rookie of the Year, 1999-2000)
G Sam Cassell (41-105 three point field goal shooting in 1994 and 1995 playoffs)

Coach: Tomjanovich (Two championships)
Best Player: Olajuwon
Best Team: 1994-95 (47-35, NBA Champions)

The Rockets first took flight in San Diego in 1967-68. The next season rookie Elvin Hayes won the scoring title and carried the team to the playoffs, but the Rockets would not return to the postseason again until 1974-75. In 1971-72, the franchise moved to Houston and hired Tex Winter as head coach. Winter installed the triangle offense that would later become a staple of the championship Jordan-Pippen Chicago Bulls and Shaq-Kobe Lakers but he lasted less than two years in Houston. Moses Malone propelled the Rockets to the 1981 Finals and the Twin Towers (Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson) led Houston to the 1986 Finals, but the Boston Celtics prevailed each time. Olajuwon made the most of his second chance in 1994, guiding Houston to a seven game triumph over a tough New York Knicks squad. The Rockets traded starting power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland for All-Star shooting guard Clyde Drexler in the middle of the following season. Houston won 11 fewer games, but powered through the playoffs, defeating several teams with better records and sweeping the Shaq-Penny Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Sam Cassell did not amass gaudy statistics as a Rocket but his clutch play was critical for both championship teams. Thorpe was left off of the Rockets 30th Anniversary Team in favor of Charles Barkley, which is odd considering that Thorpe was a key member of the first championship team and he played longer and at least as effectively in Houston as Barkley did.

Memphis Grizzlies

1st Team
F Shareef Abdur-Rahim (Four 20-plus ppg seasons for the Grizzlies)
F Pau Gasol (Rookie of the Year, 2001-02)
C Bryant Reeves (All-Rookie Team, 1995-96)
G Mike Bibby (All-Rookie Team, 1998-99)
G Michael Dickerson (18.2 ppg, 119 three point FGM, 1999-00)

2nd Team
F Shane Battier (All-Rookie Team, 2001-02)
F Othella Harrington (Tenth in the NBA in FG%, 1999-00)
C Lorenzen Wright (12.0 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2001-02)
G Jason Williams (14.8 ppg, 8.0 apg, 2001-02)
G Greg Anthony (Team leading 14.0 ppg & 6.9 apg, 1995-96)

Coach: Sidney Lowe (Franchise career wins leader)
Best Player: Abdur-Rahim
Best Team: 2001-02 (23-59)

Slim pickings--that is the first thought that comes to mind when putting together the Grizzlies' All-Time Team. When a 23-59 record is the high water mark in franchise history and "Big Country" is the team's greatest center, well, the best that can be said is that there is nowhere to go but up. Of course, with Jerry West wheeling and dealing as general manager and a frontcourt built around Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol and promising second year forward Shane Battier, "up" is not a farfetched expectation. If first round draft pick Drew Gooden contributes, Michael Dickerson stays healthy and flashy point guard Jason Williams becomes a little more consistent, the Memphis Grizzlies will be well on their way to erasing the memories of their struggling years in Vancouver. Greg Anthony, a career backup, was the Grizzlies' leading scorer and playmaker in the franchise’s initial 15-67 campaign. After that less than glittering start, Vancouver posted a worse record in two of the next three seasons. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was one of the few bright spots during that period, producing four straight 20-plus ppg seasons. The Grizzlies traded him to the Atlanta Hawks in 2001 in a multi-player deal that enabled Memphis to obtain Lorenzen Wright and, most importantly, the draft rights to Gasol.

Minnesota Timberwolves

1st Team
F Kevin Garnett (Four All-NBA selections)
F Tom Gugliotta (1997 All-Star)
C Felton Spencer (121 blocked shots in 1990-91)
G Terrell Brandon (Fifth in the NBA in assists, 1999-00)
G Stephon Marbury (All-Rookie Team, 1996-97)

2nd Team
F Christian Laettner (All-Rookie Team, 1992-93)
F Tony Campbell (23.2 ppg in inaugural season, 1989-90)
C Dean Garrett (12.7 ppg & 11.7 rpg, 1997 playoffs)
G Isaiah Rider (All-Rookie Team, 1993-94)
G Pooh Richardson (All-Rookie Team, 1989-90)

Coach: Flip Saunders (Franchise career wins leader)
Best Player: Garnett
Best Team: 1999-00 (50-32, First Round)

When filling out the Minnesota Timberwolves' All-Time Team there is a great temptation to write "awaiting future developments," "under construction" or "to be determined" in the slots for First and Second Team centers. No disrespect intended to Randy Breuer, Stacey King, Luc Longley and a host of others who have manned the pivot for Minnesota, but, to paraphrase an apt saying, if Felton Spencer and Dean Garrett are the answers, it must be a peculiar question. Spencer garners First Team honors because of his 7.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 121 blocked shots in 1990-91, yeoman work for a Timberwolves' center. Garrett earns a Second Team nod on the basis of his 12.7 ppg and 11.7 rpg in the 1997 playoffs; Houston swept Minnesota in three games, but a double double by a Minnesota center deserves recognition regardless of the circumstances or scant number of games. No Timberwolves' center has averaged 10 ppg and 10 rpg for a full season. Minnesota has overcome this glaring weakness, several roster overhauls, the league mandated loss of first round draft picks as punishment for improperly signing Joe Smith and the tragic death of Malik Sealy in a car accident to make the playoffs each of the past six seasons. The Timberwolves rely heavily on Kevin Garnett, who regularly produces 20 ppg-10 rpg-5 apg seasons and no doubt eagerly awaits the arrival of a bona fide center to complement him in the way that the San Antonio Spurs benefit from the Tim Duncan/David Robinson pairing.

San Antonio Spurs

1st Team
F Tim Duncan (MVP, 2001-02)
F Larry Kenon (Four 20-plus ppg seasons)
C David Robinson (MVP, 1994-95)
G George Gervin (Four-time scoring champion)
G James Silas (Two-time All-Star)

2nd Team
F Mike Mitchell (23.4 ppg, 1985-86)
F Sean Elliott (Two-time All-Star)
C Artis Gilmore (Two-time All-Star as a Spur)
G Alvin Robertson (Two steals titles as a Spur)
G Avery Johnson (Franchise career assists leader)

Coach: Gregg Popovich (One championship)
Best Player: Robinson
Best Team: 1998-99 (37-13, NBA Champions)

Like Denver, the Spurs were an original ABA team that started with a different name, in this case Dallas Chaparalls. The Spurs' roster has featured some of the great nicknames in basketball history, including George "Iceman" Gervin, Artis "A Train" Gilmore, Billy "the Whopper" Paultz and David "the Admiral" Robinson. Even some of the courtside San Antonio fans had a nickname: "the Baseline Bums." One of the best nicknames belonged to a player who has unfortunately been largely forgotten: "Captain Late" was not a comic book superhero, although he often seemed to perform superhuman feats. James Silas earned this distinctive moniker because of his ability to score points in bunches in clutch situations, particularly in the fourth quarter. Gervin, Silas and Larry "Mr. K" Kenon led the Spurs to the 1979 Eastern Conference Finals, but San Antonio fell in seven games to the defending champion Washington Bullets. In 1980-81 the Spurs shifted to the Western Conference. Gervin, Gilmore and Mike Mitchell took the Spurs to the Conference Finals in 1983, but the Showtime Lakers prevailed in six games. Gervin departed after the 1984-85 season and the Spurs experienced some down years until the arrival of Robinson in 1989-90 revitalized the team. In 1997-98 Tim Duncan earned Rookie of the Year honors and the next season the Spurs became the first ABA team to win an NBA championship. All that's missing is a nickname for Duncan; Shaq would no doubt suggest "the Big Fundamental" in honor of Duncan's precise footwork.

Utah Jazz

1st Team
F Karl Malone (Two MVPs)
F Adrian Dantley (Two-time scoring champion)
C Mark Eaton (Four shot blocking titles)
G John Stockton (NBA career assists leader)
G Pete Maravich (Scoring champion, 1976-77)

2nd Team
F Thurl Bailey (All-Rookie Team, 1983-84)
F Len Robinson (Rebounding champion, 1977-78)
C Rich Kelley (Second in the NBA in rebounding, 1978-79)
G Darrell Griffith (Rookie of the Year, 1980-81)
G Jeff Hornacek (NBA FT% leader, 1999-00)

Coach: Jerry Sloan (Franchise career wins leader)
Best Player: Karl Malone
Best Team: 1997-98 (62-20, NBA Finals)

Initially, the New Orleans Jazz featured the talents of virtuoso solo performers. First came native son Pete Maravich, who won the 1976-77 scoring title, along the way scoring 68 points versus Walt Frazier and the Knicks. The Jazz relocated to Utah for the 1979-80 season, released Maravich and soon found another flashy stylist, Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith, who evolved from a high flyer to a mad bomber, firing three point shots at a prodigious pace for that era. Next came Adrian Dantley, who produced 30 ppg seasons as effortlessly as Louis Armstrong played the trumpet. The Jazz and their soloists were frequently entertaining but they never won much. That changed with the arrival of John Stockton and Karl Malone, who would go on to form the longest running duet in NBA history. Stockton's pinpoint passing earned him the career assists crown and orchestrated an offensive attack that involved the whole team in screening, passing and cutting. Meanwhile, Malone's assault on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all time scoring record was accompanied by the discordant sound of his elbows clanging off the faces of various rivals, including Isiah Thomas, David Robinson, Brian Grant and Joe Kleine. Stockton to Malone has been a hit for years, but it has never reached the top of the charts in the postseason. In 1997-98 the Jazz earned homecourt advantage, but a maestro named Jordan left the Jazz singing the blues as he finished the second stanza of his career with an artistic flourish.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 AM


Monday, November 30, 2009

Shaq: The "Big Bill Cartwright"

While it is true that Michael Jordan won his six NBA titles without the benefit of playing alongside a dominant center, Jordan's Bulls benefited from crafty, effective post play at both ends of the court, particularly during the 1991-93 championship seasons when former All-Star Bill Cartwright started at center.

My newest CavsNews article compares O'Neal's current role with the Cavaliers to the role played by Cartwright during the Bulls' first threepeat (6/19/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Shaquille O’Neal has many nicknames, several of which he has bestowed upon himself, including the “Big Aristotle” and the “Big Deporter” (coined after his Lakers eliminated several playoff teams that started foreign-born players at center). In order for the Cavaliers to maximize their chances to win a championship this year, O’Neal may have to turn into the “Big Bill Cartwright.”

That comparison may sound like an insult to future Hall of Famer O’Neal but it is not insulting at all: Cartwright made the All-Star team in 1980 as a New York Knick and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting that year (behind Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), averaging nearly as many points (21.7 ppg) as O’Neal did in his first season (23.4 ppg in 1992-93 with the Orlando Magic). Cartwright averaged 20.1 ppg in his second season but then injuries—and the arrival of Patrick Ewing in 1985-86—reduced his role. In 1988, the Knicks traded Cartwright to the Chicago Bulls for power forward Charles Oakley; the Knicks now had the perfect complement for Ewing, while the Bulls had a legitimate center to team with Michael Jordan and young, promising forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. The Bulls won the first of three straight championships in Cartwright’s third season with the team (1990-91); that year, Cartwright averaged fewer than 10 ppg (9.6) in a full season for the first time in his career but he still ranked fourth on the Bulls in scoring while shooting a solid percentage from the field (.490). Cartwright finished third on the team in rebounding (6.2 rpg, trailing only Grant and Pippen) and provided a solid defensive presence in the post while playing 28.8 mpg; in the playoffs Cartwright’s minutes (30.1 mpg) and field goal percentage (.519) increased as the Bulls rolled to a 15-2 postseason record.

What does this have to do with O’Neal and the 2009-10 Cavaliers? When O’Neal teamed with Kobe Bryant to lead the Lakers to three straight NBA titles (2000-02) O’Neal routinely produced 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds per game in the postseason but O’Neal has not averaged 20 ppg or 10 rpg in the playoffs since 2004. O’Neal averaged 40-plus mpg in the playoffs during his prime but in each of his last four trips to the playoffs O’Neal has averaged 33 mpg or less. Even though O’Neal made the All-NBA Third Team and won co-MVP honors in the All-Star Game last year he can no longer carry a team on a night in, night out basis—but he can still be a force in the post at both ends of the court and that is a critical component for any team that is trying to win a championship.

Cartwright averaged a then career-low 8.2 field goal attempts per game during the 1991 championship season but he was still an important part of Chicago’s offense; Bulls Coach Phil Jackson often went to Cartwright in the post early in games, forcing the opposing team to reveal when/if they planned to double team in the paint. By establishing the threat of a post up game, the Bulls spread out the court for Jordan and Pippen to operate. Jackson told Jordan that if Jordan had the ball all of the time then the defense could shine a “spotlight” on him but that if he passed the ball into the post and cut then he could obtain easier scoring opportunities early in the game, conserving energy for the fourth quarter if the team needed him to perform game-saving solo operations. In his book “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson explained that his assistant coach Tex Winter—the developer of the famous Triangle Offense—believes that there are “seven principles of a sound offense,” with the first one being “The offense must penetrate the defense.” This penetration can happen by a drive, a pass or a shot but Jackson said that the preferred method is “to pass the ball directly into the post and go for a three-point power play” (p. 88, “Sacred Hoops,” paperback edition).

O’Neal averaged 18-20 field goal attempts per game during his prime years but this season with Cleveland he is averaging a Cartwrightesque 9.1 field goal attempts per game. O’Neal is the focal point of the offense early in the first and fourth quarters, establishing a post presence, easing the load on LeBron James and potentially creating foul trouble for the opposing team; this season we have already seen O’Neal take Dwight Howard out of the game with foul difficulties and almost single-handedly put the Cavs in the bonus in the fourth quarter versus the undersized Mavs. O’Neal is averaging career-lows across the board (11.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, .510 field goal shooting, numbers that are much like Cartwright’s 1991 statistics) but O’Neal’s impact cannot be judged by numbers alone, particularly considering his role with the Cavaliers; if O’Neal is compressing the defense into the paint and/or creating foul trouble for the opposing team then he is doing his job even if his statistics are not exceptional. In “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson wrote (p. 117, paperback edition), “The incessant accusations of the judging mind block vital energy and sabotage concentration. Some NBA coaches exacerbate the problem by rating every move players make with a plus-minus system that goes far beyond conventional statistics. ‘Good’ moves—fighting for position, finding the open man—earn the player plus rating points, while ‘bad’ moves—losing your man, fudging your footwork—show up as debits. The problem is: a player can make an important contribution to the game and still walk away with a negative score. That approach would have been disastrous for a hypercritical player like me. That’s why I don’t use it. Instead, we show players how to quiet the judging mind and focus on what needs to be done at any given moment.” There is no substitute for watching NBA games with an educated eye, whether you are a coach, a member of the media or a fan; neither highlight reels nor reams of statistics tell the full story about a team or a player.

O’Neal also should strive to emulate Cartwright’s defensive role. Cartwright was not particularly mobile defensively—and even in his prime he was never a great shotblocker—but he used his size and “educated elbows” very effectively, making it difficult for All-Star centers like Ewing to score. O’Neal used to be a highly mobile, powerfully athletic player—and a devastating shotblocker—but at this stage of his career his most important defensive assets are size, strength and intimidation; he can use his body to keep opposing post players out of the paint and he can be a physical presence discouraging opposing wing players from casually strolling through the paint on the way to the hoop: O’Neal has never hesitated to deliver a hard foul.

“Big Bill Cartwright” is a nickname that is not as flashy or grandiose as O’Neal’s other nicknames, but if O’Neal can play like Cartwright did for Jordan’s Bulls then O’Neal can help LeBron James win his first NBA championship in James’ seventh NBA season, much like Cartwright’s statistically modest—but important—contributions helped Jordan capture his first NBA title in Jordan’s seventh NBA season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:05 PM


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Efficient Cavaliers Rout Listless Mavericks

The Cleveland Cavaliers used precision passing and sizzling shooting to build an 18 point first half lead and never trailed in the second half en route to a 111-95 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. The Cavs shot .684 from the field in the first half and were credited with 23 assists on their 26 field goals. Although the Cavs cooled off in the second half--shooting .475 from the field in the final 24 minutes--they shot .577 from the field overall and finished with 33 assists on 45 field goals. LeBron James led the Cavs with 25 points and 12 assists, adding five rebounds and committing just one turnover. Mo Williams also scored 25 points, shooting 7-7 on three pointers and 9-12 overall from the field; he tied his single game career-high for three pointers made and became the first NBA player to make all seven three pointers in one game since Bobby Jackson did it on January 11, 2008 for New Orleans against Miami. Anderson Varejao scored 15 points on 7-7 field goal shooting and contributed a game-high tying nine rebounds as the Cavs outrebounded the Mavs 39-24, repeatedly winning the battles for the "50-50" balls that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown exhorts his players to relentlessly pursue. Offseason free agent acquisition Jamario Moon had his best game as a Cavalier, posting season-high totals in points (13) and rebounds (a game-high tying nine).

Delonte West, who had played fewer than seven total minutes in the Cavs' previous four games while dealing with various personal and legal issues, came off of the bench to contribute 10 points, 10 assists and four rebounds with no turnovers in a season-high 28 minutes. West started for the Cavs last season when they won an NBA-best 66 games and they are clearly a different team when he is operating at full effectiveness. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks with a game-high 27 points and a game-high tying nine rebounds. Jason Terry added 25 points off of the bench but the Mavs could neither match Cleveland's firepower nor find a way to slow down the Cavs' offensive attack. Jason Kidd had a quietly efficient game: nine points on 3-6 field goal shooting, nine assists, zero turnovers.

The Mavericks were without the services of former All-Star Josh Howard and starting center Erick Dampier, both sidelined due to injury. As a result of Dampier's absence, Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle elected to go with a small lineup featuring former Cav Drew Gooden--normally a power forward--at center. Coach Brown countered with a small lineup of his own for significant stretches of the game, resulting in former All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas receiving a DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision). Ilgauskas remains tied with Cavs' GM Danny Ferry for the most games played in franchise history (723).

Initially, though, the Cavs went with a conventional lineup and they softened up the Mavs by pounding the ball inside to Shaquille O'Neal. Although O'Neal only produced nine points on 4-10 field goal shooting with six rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes, he distorted Dallas' defense with his strong presence in the paint: early in the first quarter, O'Neal scored on a driving dunk off of a slick bounce pass from James and then O'Neal reciprocated a couple moments later with a nice feed to James for a two handed thunder dunk; then in the fourth quarter, O'Neal drew three fouls on Gooden in a stretch of less than three minutes, almost single-handedly putting the Cavs in the bonus. O'Neal is no longer a dominant player in terms of playing 40-plus minutes while scoring 30-plus points and grabbing 10-15 rebounds, but he still is a forceful low post player and he knows how to pass out of double-teams. It is an excellent strategy for the Cavs to go to him early and often in the first and fourth quarters to create foul trouble for the opposing team and to force their opponents to reveal when and where they will trap O'Neal (i.e., on the catch or on the first dribble and from the baseline or from the top of the key).

West received a loud, enthusiastic ovation from the home crowd when he entered the game at the 1:31 mark in the first quarter. West contributed two assists in the final minute of the quarter, dishing to Varejao for a layup and delivering an alley-oop to James. West played the entire second quarter, scoring eight points and passing for three assists; he displayed a versatile offensive repertoire: West posted up Terry on the left block and hit a turnaround jumper, then he grabbed a defensive rebound and went coast to coast for a layup. Later in the quarter, West nailed a turnaround jumper from the right block over J.J. Barea and he hit two free throws after being fouled on a strong drive to the hoop. After the game, James praised West's all around skill set: "Delonte is one of those guys who can not play for seven or eight straight games and come back in and not miss a beat. I don't know how he does it but you have certain guys in the league who can do that. Not only can he guard but he can score and he also can post up and that's a big threat. When he is posting up and teams have to double Delonte, man we have so many guys on the perimeter it is going to be hard to guard us. He has always been an aggressive player and he did a great job tonight."

In his postgame standup, Coach Brown singled out James, Williams, West, Varejao and Moon for praise, noting that he was pleased that the Cavs had "a lot of good individual performances...a lot of guys stood out." Before speaking with the media, Coach Brown generally uses a red pen or marker to highlight key statistics in the boxscore and those form the basis of his initial talking points before he opens the floor for questions. Cleveland's rebounding advantage, Moon's season-best performance, Mo Williams' shooting and the high assist/low turnover totals by James and West were among the numbers that Brown circled on his boxscore.

Naturally, Coach Carlisle was not at all pleased with Dallas' performance: "We needed to be better defensively. Simple as that. You give up 68 percent field goal shooting in the first half, you're going to be behind...In the first half, we got caught ball watching too many times. Cuts for layups, cuts for catches that led to another pass and a three--it got us behind the eight ball. It was probably as poor a defensive half as we've played all year."

TNT's Kenny Smith often talks about the importance of having the right mix of players so that every player is in the role that he is best suited to fill. When West is in the lineup, Coach Brown is able to distribute playing time most effectively throughout the eight or nine man rotation and he does not have to overwork a veteran player like Anthony Parker or a limited player like Daniel Gibson. If the Cavs are able to consistently get 25 productive minutes from O'Neal and 25-30 solid minutes from West then they will be very difficult to beat come playoff time. As for the Mavs, they have already demonstrated that they are a top notch Western Conference team and they will really be a handful for anyone once they bring Howard and Dampier back into the fold.

Notes From Courtside:

In Cleveland's first 16 games, LeBron James made 160 field goals and amassed 124 assists, accounting for 284 of the Cavs' 576 field goals (49.3%) while shooting career-high percentages from the field (.525), three point range (.356) and the free throw line (.786).


According to STATS, INC., the most three point field goals made by a single Cavs player in the first 15 games of the season since 1994-95 is 40 (Mark Price, 1994-95). Mo Williams (32), Anthony Parker (30) and Daniel Gibson (28) led the Cavs in 3FGM after 15 games this season. The only Cav other than Price to make more than 32 three pointers in the first 15 games of a season during that time span is Gibson (36, 2007-08). Williams and Delonte West each made 28 three pointers in the first 15 games of last season.


Dirk Nowitzki authored his fifth 30 point game of the season by scoring 31 points on 10-14 field goal shooting during Dallas' 113-92 win at Indiana on Friday night. Nowitzki became just the sixth player this season to score at least 30 points in a game while shooting at least .714 from the field. Nowitzki has not been recognized as a top MVP candidate since he won the award in 2007--no doubt at least in part because of Dallas' stunning first round loss to Golden State in that year's playoffs, a series in which Nowitzki did not distinguish himself--but he is having another outstanding season. The Mavericks were 12-4 prior to losing to Cleveland and Nowitzki ranked sixth in the NBA in scoring (a career-high 27.1 ppg) while averaging 8.6 rpg, 1.2 spg and a career-high 1.6 bpg. Nowitzki has averaged at least 21.8 ppg and 8.4 rpg in every season since 2000-01, his third year in the league. Nowitzki has averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.6 rpg during his regular season career and--contrary to popular perception in the wake of Dallas' 2006 NBA Finals loss and 2007 first round elimination--he has been even more productive during his postseason career (25.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg).

During Coach Carlisle's pregame standup, I asked him, "Do you think that in some ways Dirk Nowitzki is underrated or under the radar as an elite player? He has been 11th (in 2008) and 10th (in 2009) in MVP voting the past couple years but his stats are still at the same level that they were when he won the 2007 MVP."

Carlisle replied, "He was First Team All-NBA last year, which means that he is the best power forward in the game. MVP balloting tends to be based more on total overall record--which is legit--but when it comes to who is the best at their position I think that the press got it right in the All-NBA voting. Look, he is not under the radar to people who know basketball. We know how good he is--and he's great."


Jason Kidd recently moved into ninth place in NBA history in three point field goals made (the NBA has used the three point shot since the 1979-80 season). He also ranks second in career assists (trailing only John Stockton) and third in career triple doubles (behind only Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson). As a member of the New Jersey Nets, Kidd averaged a triple double (14.6 ppg, 10.9 apg and 10.9 rpg) during the 2007 playoffs, including a 4-2 loss to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Oscar Robertson is the only other player who averaged a triple double during an entire playoff season (1962, the same year that he became the only NBA player who averaged a triple double during an entire regular season).

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 AM