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Friday, February 19, 2010

Jamison Could be Final Championship Piece--If Big Z Rejoins Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers already owned a very deep and talented roster even before the the addition of two-time All-Star Antawn Jamison. I've been saying all along that the Cavs are the best team in the East and that is certainly the case now--especially if the Cavs are able to re-sign center Zydrunas Ilgauskas in 30 days, as I discuss in my newest CavsNews article:

Jamison Could be Final Championship Piece--If Big Z Rejoins Cavs

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 PM

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Dwyane Wade Leads East All-Stars to Thrilling Victory in Front of the Largest Basketball Crowd Ever

Dwyane Wade is the king of the basketball universe for a day and he received his crown in front of 108,713 fans, the largest crowd to ever attend a basketball game. Wade filled up the boxscore with a game-high 28 points and a team-high 11 assists plus six rebounds and five steals as the East All-Stars outlasted the West All-Stars 141-139 in Cowboys Stadium. Wade shot 12-16 from the field and scored at least eight points in each of the final three quarters; even though he only scored two points in the first quarter his one basket provided some foreshadowing of the dazzling display that Wade was about to unleash: he tossed the ball high off of the backboard, muscled defender Steve Nash out of the way like a big brother bullying his little brother while playing on a Nerf hoop and then slammed the ball home with authority.

LeBron James was in the hunt for MVP honors until he fizzled out a bit with four points on 2-7 shooting in the fourth quarter but he still finished with 25 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals. He retained the unique distinction of being the career leader in All-Star game scoring average without ever topping a single All-Star game in points. Texas native Chris Bosh had 23 points and a game-high tying 10 rebounds. Dwight Howard (17 points, five rebounds) and Joe Johnson (10 points) were the only other double figure scorers for the East.

Despite his denials in the postgame press conference, Carmelo Anthony certainly seemed determined to shoot his way to the MVP award, firing up 11 attempts in the first quarter en route to 13 points, but despite his early offensive fireworks the East led 37-34. Anthony ended up with a team-high 27 points and a game-high tying 10 rebounds. Hometown favorite Dirk Nowitzki added 22 points, while his Dallas teammate Jason Kidd--a late replacement for the injured Kobe Bryant--played just 6:11 and was the only participant who did not score a point. The balanced West squad had seven players score in double figures; Chauncey Billups did not have much impact in the first three quarters but scored 14 of his 17 points in the closing stanza, including five points in the final 2:03 when there were two ties and two lead changes. Much like Jerry West put up modest numbers (13 points, six rebounds, five assists) but seized the 1972 All-Star MVP by hitting a game-winning buzzer beater, it appeared that "Mr. Big Shot" might be positioning himself to steal the show from Wade, James, Anthony and Nowitzki. Ultimately, the West's late rally fell just short, in no small part due to a pair of gaffes by Deron Williams: first Williams turned the ball over with the score tied and less than 18 seconds remaining and then he fouled Wade with the East in the bonus. Wade hit both free throws, Nowitzki countered with a pair of free throws and then Bosh provided the game's final points with two free throws after Billups committed a loose ball foul at the five second mark. Anthony's game-winning three point attempt missed the mark as time expired.

This game had a strange rhythm to it, as players and fans alike seemed to need some time to adjust to the oversized setting and hyped up environment. Surprisingly, shooting percentages did not suffer despite the challenge of shooting against a background that differs dramatically from those that are usually found in NBA arenas. I watched the game from my perch in press box one--"high above courtside" as the late, great Johnny Most would say, though the press box one denizens were likely higher above courtside than Most ever was. The players were clearly visible--but looked quite small--and most press box inhabitants found their eyes inexorably drawn to the massive video board. In the press box the stadium sound was largely muted, so the effect was kind of like watching the game on the world's biggest television screen with little audio: the images were stunning and the replays were plentiful but a lot of the normal feel/vibe of attending a live event was absent. I'm sure that the experience was different for those who were on the other side of the press box windows and thus heard the game's sounds and the crowd's reactions at full volume; during the extended halftime show I wandered down from the press box to soak things in from courtside (or as close to courtside as I could get, as the floor level was understandably quite congested with fans and media members alike trying to get a closer look/listen). The fans certainly seemed to be quite engaged and excited.

The East appeared to have matters pretty well in hand with a 135-126 lead at the 4:17 mark of the fourth quarter; a substantial portion of the crowd headed for the exits while many media members left the press box to go to to the press conference rooms on the floor level. Then the East missed some shots, Billups got hot, the margin tightened and the dramatic conclusion played out in front of a lot of empty seats. Overall, though, this All-Star Game has to be considered a big success for the NBA: the league set an attendance record and generated a lot of interest in a game that turned out to be entertaining and concluded with a hard fought finish.

East Coach Stan Van Gundy was the last person to be interviewed in the main postgame press conference room; he looked at the assembled media crowd--which had just thinned out markedly after James finished his press conference--and quipped, "You can't seriously have any questions for a coach in an All-Star Game." ESPN's John Hollinger did not ask about the game but rather sought out Van Gundy's reaction to the nightmare scenario possibly facing NBA coaches: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joining forces next summer. Van Gundy said, "You know, I don't think you needed to see tonight to understand that that would scare any of us in this league. Incredible talents, both of them, obviously." Despite all of the feverish speculation about James leaving Cleveland to play in New York or New Jersey, neither of those scenarios makes any sense; James understands that his resume will not be complete unless he wins an NBA title--10 or 15 years from now he does not want to be the butt of jokes on TNT a la Charles Barkley (with all due respect to the ring-less Round Mound of Rebound) and James is smart enough to realize that the New York and New Jersey franchises are not built to win championships. However, if James and Wade work out a way to play for the same team as a package deal then that team instantly becomes very formidable, assuming that the rest of the roster is not completely gutted to pay the two superstars. The only way that I see James leaving Cleveland is if the Cavaliers fall short of winning the 2010 title and he is able to partner with Wade in the aforementioned manner.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Legends Brunch Honors Alonzo Mourning, Five Great Mavs

Most mainstream media coverage of this All-Star Weekend either revolves around the seemingly 24 hour a day party circuit that has become this event's trademark or the spectacle that will take place tonight at Jerry Jones' billion dollar pleasure palace--but the hidden gem that sparkles brightest for me is the Legends Brunch. It is both a duty and a privilege to recognize, acknowledge and praise the people whose hard work and sacrifices built NBA basketball into the popular sport/multibillion dollar business that it has become.

One of the really fun aspects of the brunch is that except for the tables right at the front that are reserved for certain players and their families you can sit wherever you want, providing an opportunity to really mingle with the retired players. My tablemates included Ollie Taylor, Nate Williams (one of Pistol Pete Maravich's teammates with the New Orleans Jazz), Major Jones (one of four brothers who each played at Albany State before playing in the NBA) and Jones' wife Renee Taplin-Jones.

TNT's Ernie Johnson served as Master of Ceremonies, deftly mixing self-deprecating humor with appropriate praise for the distinguished gathering of all-time greats. NBA Commissioner David Stern opened his remarks by acknowledging how big this event has become (the attendance likely exceeded 1000 people in one huge ballroom): "Standing room only is what this group deserves." He called the Legends Brunch "a highlight among highlights" during All-Star Weekend. "Former players are the foundation of our success," Stern added.

This year's Legends Brunch honored a particularly eloquent and accomplished group. Stern presented the Legend of the Year award to Alonzo Mourning, whose tireless work for Haiti's earthquake victims is just the latest in a long line of his charitable endeavors. The face of Mourning known to the general public was perpetually twisted into an intense and fiery visage during his playing days but we saw a completely different side of him during his acceptance speech. Mourning said, "This particular honor I will cherish simply because of Wayman Tisdale," the Phoenix Suns' great who was honored at last year's Legends Brunch shortly before losing his battle with cancer. Mourning added, "I've always been hesitant about receiving awards for doing what you are supposed to do." Mourning believes that every person has an obligation to do something to make the world a better place and that the world would be completely different if more people fulfilled that obligation. He quoted Muhammad Ali: "Service to others is the rent you pay on Earth."

Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this year, presented the Legends Leadership Award to Derek Harper. Harper was the point guard for some great Dallas teams in the 1980s but he readily acknowledged that he "owes Mark (Aguirre) money" because all of the Mavs from that era know that "we lived off of Mark," one of the most underrated forwards in pro basketball history.

Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman presented the Pioneer Award to Rolando Blackman, who was born in Panama City but raised in New York City. Blackman praised his "great, cerebral teammates" who helped him to be so successful. Blackman said that he is known as a deadeye shooter (the four-time All-Star owns a .493 career field goal percentage) but that many people don't understand that teamwork played a big role in that success; his teammates set good screens and delivered their passes on time and on target. Blackman said that this lesson applies to life in general because "We really don't do anything by ourselves."

Three-time All-Star and two-time Sixth Man of the Year Detlef Schrempf presented the Humanitarian Award to Sam Perkins, who seemed to be truly surprised and humbled. Perkins thought that he was just going to attend the Brunch until he found out shortly before he traveled to Dallas that he would in fact be one of the honorees. Mourning mentioned how difficult it is for him to accept that his playing days are over but Perkins joked that he can deal with this because he is not the oldest retired player in the room: there are "cats, cougars and mountain lions," so Mourning and Perkins are just starting out down that trail. Perkins said that he is more of an "honorable mention" than a true legend when compared to some of the all-time greats present at the brunch.

Bill Walton presented the ABC (Athletics, Business, Communities) Award to James Donaldson, a one-time All-Star with Dallas who previously had been Walton's teammate with the Clippers in both San Diego and Los Angeles. The massive Donaldson--listed at 7-2, 275 pounds during his playing days--was born in England and after 14 NBA seasons he finished his playing career in Europe before returning to the United States to open a thriving physical therapy business.

Magic Johnson presented the Career Achievement Award to his long-time friend Mark Aguirre, noting that Aguirre still holds the Maverick single season scoring average record (29.5 ppg, 1983-84). Johnson applauded Mourning for his charitable work before turning his attention to Aguirre and the other Maverick award winners, declaring, "What you've seen here this morning are some of the smartest guys to play basketball." Johnson added, "We (Johnson's L.A. Lakers) used to hate to play Dallas" because the Mavericks executed their offense better than any other team in the league.

Aguirre seemed to be truly overwhelmed by the whole event, gushing that he had no idea about the extent of Mourning's philanthropic endeavors or about some of the worthwhile projects being led by the other honorees. Aguirre expressed his desire to become more involved in those activities and offer whatever support that he can. He also praised the "incredible mentors" who helped him along the way, specifically mentioning legendary DePaul Coach Ray Meyer. Aguirre revealed that Meyer taught him how to perfect Oscar Robertson's trademark one handed jumper so that he could always keep defenders guessing about the timing and release point of the shot. Most of the speakers echoed Mourning's call that we should all be givers and not just takers but Aguirre admitted that he "took" a lot of ideas during his playing days: besides Robertson's shot, Aguirre also "stole" Alex English's runner and Bernard King's patented spin move. Aguirre reminisced about playing an old Mattel NBA game as a child and said that he is proud to pass on to his daughters knowledge about the history of the game and the feats accomplished by his heroes, including Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:39 PM

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Nowitzki and Nash Lend a Maverick Flavor to All-Star Saturday Night

Current Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki and beloved former Maverick Steve Nash accounted for half of the contest winners on All-Star Saturday night. Nowitzki's amalgamated Texas team--including San Antonio WNBA star Becky Hammon and Houston Rockets legend Kenny Smith--won the Shooting Stars event over a Los Angeles team comprised of Laker Pau Gasol, Los Angeles WNBA star Marie Ferdinand-Harris and L.A. Clipper legend (and 1996 Slam Dunk champion) Brent Barry. Then Steve Nash--a two-time MVP as a Phoenix Sun who received a very warm welcome from Dallas fans who remember his days as the Mavericks' point guard--defeated young guns Deron Williams, Brandon Jennings and Russell Westbrook to claim his second Skills Challenge title. Smith suggested that this is just the start of a Dallas-themed All-Star Weekend because Nowitzki will be a strong contender to win the All-Star MVP; Nowitzki will start in place of the injured Kobe Bryant and there have often been times when the hometown star is fed the ball by his teammates if he is hot and has a chance to capture the MVP.

The Three Point Contest was tightly fought--the scores ranged from 14 to 20--and yet not particularly dramatic. In the end, Boston's Paul Pierce--determined to avenge his disastrous performance in the 2002 Three Point Contest--hit all five last round "money balls" en route to posting 20 points to defeat Golden State's Stephen Curry (17 points) and Denver's Chauncey Billups (14). Curry started fast in the last round but faded in the middle racks and was essentially out of contention by the time that he began the final rack (he would have had to run the table just to tie Pierce, but Curry missed the first shot). Pierce was eliminated in the first round in 2002 after bricking his way to just eight points and this was the first time he had been invited back. As Pierce received the trophy, he told the Dallas fans that he knew that most people consider him a scorer, not a shooter, but that he thinks he is the best shooter in NBA history; he only backed down slightly in the post-event press conference, saying, "I would say one of the best. I've always said this and I tell this to guys on my team. I said throughout my career, I've always been known as a pure scorer and I always said if I just sat outside and shot threes and really just focused on that--come off screens and spot up and shoot six or seven threes a game--I would probably be more known as one of the great shooters in NBA history." Informed that Celtic legend Larry Bird won the Three Point Contest in Dallas in 1986, Pierce replied, "They say history always repeats itself and it did tonight. The stars were lined up I guess."

The Slam Dunk Contest is supposed to be the climax of All-Star Saturday but this event has been hit or miss in recent years. It simply does not have the cachet or mystique that it carried when the league's very top stars vied for aerial supremacy. Gerald Wallace is a first-time All-Star, while Nate Robinson, DeMar DeRozan and Shannon Brown are role players. Robinson's previous battles with Dwight Howard were entertaining and colorful but this year Robinson did not have such a charismatic--or physically imposing--foe. Brown and Wallace went out meekly in the first round. DeRozan is clearly a much more obscure figure to basketball fans than Robinson is; during the Slam Dunk Contest the scoreboard at the arena even misspelled his first name as "Dermar"! DeRozan earned the only perfect score of the night with an impressive dunk after catching a lob that his Toronto teammate Sonny Weems threw off of the side of the backboard but then Robinson stole the show by parading out four Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Fans no doubt thought that Robinson would jump over one or more of the girls but in fact they were just eye candy/inspiration. Robinson cannot palm the ball but he has such great springs in his legs that he can dunk two-handed at just 5-9 (and he quite possibly is shorter than that). Robinson's spinning, twisting two-handed reverse dunk after catching his own pass off of the backboard enabled him to squeak by DeRozan in the fan voting, 51% to 49%. Robinson is the only three-time Slam Dunk champion and he said afterwards that he will not compete in the event again.

Frankly, in general the All-Star Saturday events were not as exciting or dramatic as they have been in years past. In fact, the most entertaining event of the night may have been Commissioner David Stern's annual All-Star Weekend press conference: in a virtuoso performance that lasted less than 40 minutes, Commissioner Stern managed to reel off a string of one-liners:

1) After opening his remarks with a glowing state of the league report, he coyly said, "Is there anything I left out?" Media members laughed out loud as Stern paused and then added, "I guess I should mention this thing about collective bargaining."

2) Stern noted that San Antonio owner Peter Holt likes to say "This is not my first rodeo"; Stern said, "I don't even know if this is my ninth rodeo or my tenth. I've been around this. So I would give yesterday's meeting high marks on the list of theatrical negotiations. Literally out of the handbook of Negotiating 101...the right adjectives were thrown around and our proposal was appropriately denounced. Our response is you can denounce it, tear it up, you can burn it, you can jump up and down on it, as long as you understand that it reflects the financial realities of where we are."

3) Stern said that he has been involved in NBA negotiations since 1966: "I started when I was in a crib."

4) Responding to a question about the union tearing up the league proposal or taking it off of the table, Stern quipped, "I don't know what that means. We are talking semantics and everyone around here knows that I am not anti-semantic."

Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien better watch out!

One thing that Stern does not find the least bit amusing is that some anonymous NBA executives have taken potshots at the players; one colorful quote declared that if the players don't like the NBA's proposal then "LeBron James can play football, where he will make less than the new max. Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won’t make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years." Stern did not cite that quote specifically but I'm sure he had it in mind when he called such anonymous broadsides "cowardly" and vowed that if he ever finds out who said it "they would be dealt with; they would be former NBA people, not current."

Between the Henny Youngman shtick and the harsh words for executives who have spoken out of turn, Stern sent some straightforward shots across the bow in the direction of the Players Union regarding the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. Essentially, Stern declared that the league's financial books have been opened up to the players and the numbers show that the league and its teams are losing hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Therefore, the league's current economic model is not sustainable; the owners made a proposal to the union about how to fix matters and if the union does not like the proposal then Stern suggests that the players counter with an alternative that is fair to all sides.

I have not seen the books, so I don't know who is right and who is blowing smoke but what I found fascinating is that on one hand Stern declares that the league is doing better than ever in terms of reaching fans on a worldwide basis but on the other hand he claims that the NBA is losing money. That is a jarring dichotomy but most media members apparently did not pick up on it. Finally, near the end of the press conference, True Hoop's Henry Abbott asked Stern, "Can you just help us understand a little bit how the league has had such good attendance and ratings and all of these new international markets and yet hundreds of millions of dollars in losses?" Stern replied that "revenue generation has not been a problem...(but) the cost of that revenue has gone up dramatically." For example, teams are filling up arenas with fans by freezing or reducing ticket prices: hence, more revenue is created but the profit margin vanishes. Therefore, expenses have to be cut in some way and that is why the league has proposed to change how the revenues are split between the owners and the players.

Sometimes I have critiqued True Hoop and its various satellite blogs but that is not personal: I just hold professionals to high standards and I expect that people who are fortunate enough to communicate to a large audience should produce content of the highest possible quality. By the same token, I think that it is important to offer praise when someone does a good job, so I caught up with Abbott in the media dining area after the press conference and told him that I thought he asked the best question of the entire press conference.

Abbott and I agree that when more people have the opportunity to really digest Stern's entire message they will wonder how it can simultaneously be true that the NBA is thriving and yet bleeding money at prodigious rates. No doubt the union will ask that question as well. Again, I do not pretend to know the truth about the league's finances or business model but it seems doubtful that this press conference offered the final word in that regard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM

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