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Saturday, February 13, 2010

News, Nuggets and Notes From Saturday's Media Availability Sessions

I have closely followed Kevin Durant's career from when he struggled to play shooting guard for Coach P.J. Carlesimo to when Carlesimo's replacement Scott Brooks wisely put Durant back at his natural forward position. Durant's production immediately improved after he started playing forward, so it has always puzzled me that anyone would deny that positional designations matter.

This season, Durant has emerged as an MVP level offensive player whose all-around game is continuing to blossom. The case is pretty much closed regarding just how important it was to put Durant back into his comfort zone but I decided to check in with him once again to hear his thoughts about the matter. I asked Durant, "How much did the position change shifting you from shooting guard to small forward benefit both you and the team?" Durant enthusiastically replied, "Oh, it's helped me out a lot and especially (helped) our team. It was tough for me playing shooting guard. I was guarding smaller players and smaller players were guarding me; that's what led to a lot of turnovers. Smaller players can get up under me when I dribble the basketball. It was tough but it was a learning adjustment and I think that by the end of my rookie year I learned how to play that position so now I can play multiple positions on the floor. From the two to the four--where (Coach) Scotty Brooks plays me a lot--it's helped me out, so I just have to continue to watch film and focus on what my coaches need for me to do to get better."

Durant is a very earnest, pleasant and soft spoken young man but beneath that unassuming demeanor he clearly has an enormous passion to learn how to master the game and broaden his skill set. Durant is often compared with George Gervin--for obvious reasons considering their respective skill sets and physiques--but it is important to remember that Gervin established himself as an All-Star forward prior to being moved to shooting guard; in other words, he first turned himself into a highly productive professional player at his natural position and this helped him to make a smooth transition from one position to another, which is exactly the process that Durant described in the above quote: playing forward returned him to his comfort zone and as a result now it is possible to situationally slot him in at other positions--as opposed to compounding the difficulties of being a rookie with the challenge of learning a position that he had never played previously at any level.

***

It was great to see Bill Walton at the Hall of Fame press conference, because he had been laid up for quite some time due to debilitating back problems that forced him to quit his job as an NBA commentator for ESPN. Walton spoke with a small group of reporters after the press conference, standing for quite some time before sitting down to continue the interviews. I missed most of what he said because I was interviewing Jerry Colangelo and Magic Johnson but I walked over in time to hear some interesting comments by Walton.

Asked to handicap the 2010 NBA playoffs, Walton declared, "The Lakers are far and away the class of the West. Far and away. The other teams, they can dream...Right now, the Lakers are the champions. They have the best coach, they have the best player--one of the two best players: it is very difficult to differentiate between Kobe and LeBron...The Lakers have every base covered. The Lakers have five players who in any game--in ANY game--can be the best player in the game, between Kobe, Gasol--who is the best big man in the game today--Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. Five guys who in any game played today could be the best player. That is how good the Lakers are--and they play as a team."

I recently did an in depth examination of the "supporting casts" for Bryant and James respectively; since I wrote that post, the Lakers won three straight games without the injured Bryant and Bynum, while the Cavaliers extended their winning streak to 13 games (best in the NBA this season) despite being without the services of injured All-Star guard Mo Williams. I stand by everything that I said regarding Cleveland's great depth but I would like to examine Walton's statement in the context of refining some of what I said about the Lakers.

I agree with Walton that the Lakers are the "class of the West"; if the Lakers are even reasonably healthy during the playoffs (i.e., Kobe has two functional legs and at least seven semi-functional fingers and either Bynum or Gasol is available throughout the postseason) then they will at the very least return to the NBA Finals. I also agree with Walton's nuanced and reasonable comparison of Bryant and James; contrary to the popular belief since midway through last season, James has not decisively passed Bryant for best player in the game status. The two are still quite close; Bryant still has the more complete skill set, while James is more athletic and--at least this season--more durable.

Walton's statement that the Lakers have five players who at any given time could be the best player in a game is interesting; clearly, Bryant and Gasol fit that bill without question. Artest can be the best defensive player in a given game and he is also a skilled passer and good three point shooter but--at least at this stage of his career--he is rarely the best overall player on the court. He is averaging 11.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg and 3.1 apg this season; while I would be the first to note that a player's statistics can be deflated on a good team and inflated on a bad team, it is more than a stretch to classify Artest as an elite player right now. As for Odom, it is true that he can be the best player in a given game, primarily because he is capable of grabbing more than 20 rebounds while also scoring in the teens or 20s--but, to paraphrase Iyanla Vanzant, all potential means is that you aren't doing anything right now. Lamar Odom was averaging a triple single for most of this season until the past three games lifted his scoring average to 10.1 ppg and his rebounding average to 9.9 rpg. He is shooting .451 from the field, his worst mark since 2003-04. Realistically, just how likely is it that Odom will be the best player on the court in a given game? Andrew Bynum has certainly shown flashes of dominance, some of which even last for a few weeks, but he has yet to prove that he can be healthy and consistent for an entire season. Again, this is where Vanzant's words of wisdom come into play. If and when Bynum proves to be a 20-10 player over the course of the better part of an 82 game season then he will fully deserve the kind of praise that Walton lavished on him.

Walton's comment also ignore the fact that the Lakers' roster markedly declines in quality after you get past those top five players. That said, it is impressive that the Lakers beat three playoff teams--including a hot Utah squad--sans Bryant and Bynum. How can I reconcile those performances with my assessments? I tend to not overreact to small sample sizes; look back and you will find that after the Cavs started the season slowly I did not waver from my contention that they would prove to be the best team in the East. Similarly, I am not yet fully convinced that the Lakers' bench (specifically Farmar and Vujacic) will continue to perform well with increased minutes. Odom has always been a sporadic player, so regardless of when Bryant returns Odom will have his ups and downs. Gasol has been very impressive but it is not unheard of for an All-Star to string together three excellent games. In short, I am somewhat surprised that the Lakers went 3-0 without Bryant--and I definitely thought that they would lose to Utah--but I still trust that in the long run my skill set evaluations based on years of watching all of these players will prove to be accurate. Naturally, unfolding events could prove me wrong and if that happens I will have no problem admitting it--but a three game sample size does not invalidate years of research.

Unfortunately for Lakers fans, that sample size could end up increasing. Although Bryant told the assembled media on Saturday that he "hopes" to play in the Lakers' first game after All-Star Weekend, he admitted that the decision to skip playing in the All-Star Game--the first time that he has ever had to do so--was not even close; when he tried to practice he simply could not push off with any force using his injured ankle. Bryant said that he could play through other injuries because he knew that they would continue to heal whether or not he played but "If I play with it (the sprained ankle), it won't get better." Bryant and the Lakers' training staff have not yet been able to get the inflammation under control. Bryant has always been a fast healer with a high pain threshold but he is also a 31 year old in his 14th season, which means that the treads on his tires have a lot of wear on them.

By the way, Bryant's take on the Lakers' three game winning streak is that his absence has forced the other players to play with a greater focus and sense of urgency. He even said that his injury could be a "blessing in disguise" provided that the other Lakers "stay in that pocket" of awareness after he returns. Bryant added that he is not concerned that the Lakers have not consistently displayed such focus; he said that every team that is trying to win repeat championships has struggled with this and pointed out that even last year's championship team did not fully buckle down until the Denver Nuggets posed a serious threat in the Western Conference Finals.

***

Right when I walked over to West Coach George Karl's table during the media availability session he said that some members of his Denver Nuggets coaching staff are already comparing Golden State rookie Stephen Curry to two-time MVP Steve Nash. Karl hastened to add that he is not quite ready to go there yet but that Curry is a very impressive player who already makes excellent reads that cause coaches to rewind game tape to marvel at his decisionmaking and court vision (Karl said that the three previous players who inspired that reaction were Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Steve Nash). While some people once compared Curry unfavorably with J.J. Redick--who actually is performing solidly as a backup guard after struggling during his first several NBA seasons--I evaluated Curry's skill set when he was still in college and concluded:

Curry can pass off of the dribble, he can drive to the hoop and finish with a dunk, he has quick hands and he can slide his feet well enough to at least be adequate defensively at the NBA level. Curry can also dribble down court at full speed, stop and shoot a step back three pointer, which--combined with his ability to handle the ball and drive to the hoop--means that he will be able to get his shot off in the NBA; in other words, his game is very similar to his father's, though I would say that Dell Curry was a bit bigger and stronger while Stephen is quicker and a bit more clever as a ballhandler. In addition to the aforementioned similarities with his father, Stephen Curry also reminds me a bit of Jeff Hornacek, a lights out shooter who could play point guard in a pinch.

It is obviously still too early to make definitive conclusions but Curry so far has performed pretty much the way that I predicted above. By the way, Curry recently joined a select group of all-time greats who posted a 35 point, 10 rebound, 10 assist game as a rookie (Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Jason Kidd are the others).

When I covered the ABA Reunion during the 2005 All-Star Weekend various ABA players regaled me with many great stories about their experiences in that league, not all of which I have had the opportunity to publish yet. One of them involved George Karl. Joe Hamilton told me that when Karl was a rookie Karl played like an absolute madman, diving all over the court and taking charges. One time, Karl tried to take a charge on George McGinnis--a 6-8, 235 mountain of a man--and McGinnis about knocked Karl into the next week. Hamilton and the other veteran players told Karl he would not last long in the ABA if he kept trying to take charges against McGinnis. After Karl made brief, nostalgic mention of his ABA days--and lauded Artis Gilmore as a Hall of Fame-worthy player who was a "Shaq-like force, a Wilt Chamberlain-like force"--I asked him, "What memory sticks out most for you from your ABA playing career?" I recounted Hamilton's story and Karl looked at me wide-eyed before asking me "Where the hell is Joe Hamilton?" I explained that Hamilton was not in the interview area and that I had heard the story several years go. Karl then replied, "Yeah, that's true. I had my testicles taped off my legs for a week. It was a hell of a hit, a hell of a hit." When I reminded Karl that Hamilton and the other veterans had teased Karl that he would not last long playing that way Karl immediately said, "I lasted long enough--tore my knees up." I thought that maybe Karl was taking the story the wrong way--I'd never spoken with him before--so I said, "I know that you did but you probably didn't take charges like that again from McGinnis." Karl good-naturedly insisted, "I liked taking charges" but he conceded "McGinnis was huge--and he was trying to hit me." I then asked Karl my original question again and he answered, "I just was amazed at how many good players there were. Here is the NBA and everyone is saying that we (the ABA players) weren't any good but the best player I ever played against was a guy named Jimmy Jones who was an All-Pro guard in Utah for many years. He got into the NBA and his first year he tore his knee up--but by far he was the best guard I faced. I couldn't last 10 minutes--he would light me up, trick me. He and James Silas from the Spurs were actually from the same little town in Louisiana (Tallulah). They grew up in the same little town. So I remember Jimmy Jones. The ABA, for me, gave me the privilege to play. I probably wouldn't have been able to play, on the court, in the NBA; I could have maybe made the roster but it gave me the privilege to play the game at a high level. We played many exhibition games against the NBA and I got the honor of fighting with Pete Maravich--being the only guy to ever throw a punch at Pete Maravich. So, you know, we got fired up for those games; I don't know if they (NBA players) got as fired up for those games as we got fired up. It was always fun whenever we got our paychecks to see everyone run a little faster to their cars and race to the bank; there is no question that was on our minds, the bouncing of the checks. We started one year with like 10 teams and ended with seven; the schedule got changed in the middle of the year."

I asked Karl, "Did you get to see Roger Brown at his best or had he already started to decline by the time you came into the league?"

Karl answered, "Probably a little down, a little decline. He and Willie Wise were kind of at that veteran stage, not playing above the rim as much anymore--well, Wise never really did play above the rim. All those guys--Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, Doug Moe--came from that scandalous time (the NBA banned them for alleged associations with gamblers, though none of those players were ever convicted of any crimes or even credibly implicated in any wrongdoing). What's kind of funny is that not a lot of people know that David Stern was in charge of settling the lawsuit (pertaining to ending the NBA's ban against those players). Doug Moe always told me the story about how Stern was negotiating with him all the time when Stern was just a lawyer for the NBA. Doug said he was cussing at Stern all the time."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

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