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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bryant Saves the Day (Again), McHale Explains Why the "7-11 Defense" Does not Work

The L.A. Lakers defeated the Toronto Raptors 109-107 in the featured game of NBA TV's "Fan Night" on Tuesday. Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 32 points on 11-20 field goal shooting, dished off a team-high six assists and nailed the game-winning jumper with less than two seconds remaining; Bryant scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including six of the Lakers' final nine points--and that kind of sustained production in the final 12 minutes with the game on the line is more significant than Bryant's final shot, even though that coup de grace will no doubt be replayed countless times. The fact that the Lakers repeatedly need for Bryant to be so extraordinarily productive and efficient just to win games against mediocre teams belies the commonly held myth about the extent of the Lakers' depth.

The game itself simply reaffirmed what I have said regarding the Lakers' roster but the most fascinating part of the broadcast was a brief interlude that took place during a timeout. NBA TV played a soundbite of L.A. Clippers' color commentator Michael Smith reminiscing about his days playing with Kevin McHale on the Boston Celtics. Smith recalled that McHale--who now works for NBA TV--would "script" his first five post moves of the game (much like former San Francisco 49ers Coach Bill Walsh went into each game with a script of offensive plays). NBA TV's Ernie Johnson asked McHale about this and McHale confirmed that he essentially scouted every low post defender in the league and came up with a script for each one based on that player's strengths and weaknesses. McHale might hit him with a jump hook first and then the next time down the court he would fake the jump hook and spin baseline. McHale worked against his defender's tendencies and instincts to get the defender off balance and hopefully tag the defender with a couple early fouls; McHale quipped that if a defender had two fouls in the first quarter then the defender would play "7-11 defense": stand still with his hands straight up in the air (as if he were in a 7-11 that is being robbed). McHale would then shoot right over the top of him and tell him "That 7-11 defense is not going to work."

Pau Gasol certainly has good low post moves and Andrew Bynum has improved in that regard but instead of offering indirect public complaints that they should be getting the ball more it would be nice to see those two seven footers consistently finish with authority around the rim and properly position themselves defensively on the screen/roll plays that have been killing the Lakers recently.

Bynum had a strong game against the Raptors (22 points on 8-12 field goal shooting) but here are his field goal percentages in his previous 10 games: .727, .467, .625, .625, .563, .429, .750, .556, .333. .200. It is great that Bynum had three performances of .625 or better but he also had four games in which he shot .467 or worse. Considering the number of spoonfed dunks and easy putbacks that Bynum gets as a result of Bryant being double-teamed, Bynum's shooting percentage should be much more consistent. Moreover, the Lakers' coaching staff is concerned that Bynum's effort defensively and on the boards seems to be directly linked to how many points he scores.

There are subtle--and not so subtle--signs that Coach Phil Jackson is not pleased with Gasol's game right now. Jackson recently cut short one of Gasol's postgame media sessions in order to have Gasol speak one on one with Charles Oakley, one of the NBA's top enforcers in the 1980s and 1990s. Jackson also responded to the Lakers' three game losing streak and Gasol's pleas to get the ball more by playing Gasol for just 30:31 versus Toronto, Gasol's fewest minutes played since February 1; Jackson sat Gasol for virtually the entire fourth quarter. Gasol finished with 17 points and nine rebounds but he shot just 4-11 from the field, including an airball layup after a slick dish from Bryant plus another point blank miss at the end of the third quarter; Gasol's whining after that play earned him a technical foul--replays showed minimal or no contact on the play, certainly not enough contact to prevent a seven footer from scoring--and a seat on the bench next to Jackson. Here are Gasol's field goal percentages over the previous 10 games: .357, .583, .444, .556, .588, .429, .545, .364, .357, .615. Just like Bynum, Gasol has been inconsistent: five games of .545 or better but five games of .444 or worse.

Bryant's shooting has been inconsistent since he broke the index finger on his shooting hand in December but--unlike his bigs--he shoulders the added responsibilities of being the team's primary playmaker and of being the only player on the team who is willing and able to carry the offensive burden in the fourth quarter. Bryant tries to involve his bigs in the offense early in games but he understandably calls his own number down the stretch if those guys are not being productive.

If Gasol and Bynum scripted some plays a la Kevin McHale, induced their defenders into "7-11" mode and finished strongly around the hoop then Bryant would not have to save so many games at the end. Instead, it seems as if they are content to go through the motions, wait for Bryant to swoop in to the rescue--and then complain afterward that they did not get enough touches. Pat Riley once referred to "the disease of me," the way that overinflated egos can prevent a team from repeating as champion; the Lakers won the title last year with Bryant as the clear first option on offense, Gasol as the second option and everyone else getting scoring opportunities based on how the opposing team dealt with Bryant and Gasol. Bynum played fewer than 20 minutes in 15 of the Lakers' 23 playoff games last season and he scored in double figures just five times--Bynum was a role player, not a key contributor and certainly not an offensive focal point. We have already seen Pau Gasol be the lead guy on a team for six years, make the All-Star team once and fail to win a single playoff game; we have seen Andrew Bynum go along for the ride as the Lakers won a championship. Those guys need to remember exactly what the Lakers' winning formula was last year and fill their roles as opposed to getting delusions about what their roles should be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:01 PM


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Cavs Shock World, Win Game Without LeBron James: Stunned Bill Simmons Declares that Kobe Bryant is the MVP

Usually I play it straight with my headlines but I just could not resist having some fun this time; Bill Simmons and so many other writers have literally built their careers on making broad statements that are unsupported by facts or logic and you just know that if the L.A. Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs without Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum while Lamar Odom missed most of the game due to injury Simmons would write a 10,000 word manifesto suggesting that those 48 minutes "prove" that the Lakers could make it to the Finals without Bryant and that therefore LeBron James--who obviously (to Simmons) has no help whatsoever--should immediately be awarded the MVP trophy.

OK, fun time is over and now I will go back to my usual mode of providing serious-minded, objective analysis. I do not believe in making snap judgments about teams or players based on one game or on a small sample size of games: when the Cleveland Cavaliers started off slowly this season I insisted that they would right the ship because of how talented and deep they are; when the L.A. Lakers went 4-1 sans Kobe Bryant I cautioned that it would be incorrect to read too much into those victories, particularly since the Portland Trail Blazers were woefully shorthanded, the San Antonio Spurs had lost five of their previous nine games and the Golden State Warriors are just not that good.

Therefore, I don't think that too much should be made of Cleveland's 97-95 victory over San Antonio; that one game by itself cannot possibly form the basis of a general evaluation of either team. However, the way in which that game is covered/discussed by various media outlets is something that will be interesting to monitor, because the Cavs were without the services of LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, while the Spurs were missing Tony Parker; it should also be noted that the Cavs will be without Zydrunas Ilgauskas--their backup center most of this season and the starting center for last season's 66 win squad--until at least March 22, when he will likely re-sign with the only team for which he has played during his NBA career. In other words, the Cavs beat a solid Western Conference playoff team despite being without three of the top seven players in their rotation, including the player who should be the consensus regular season MVP choice--and you could actually say that the Cavs were missing three and a half of their top seven players, because two-time All-Star power forward Antawn Jamison only played 21 minutes before being sidelined by a knee injury.

Maybe this was just a one game fluke but this result surely must be confusing to those people who make bold declarations that the Cavs would be a lottery team without James or that James clinched the MVP award when the Lakers went 4-1 without Bryant because it is "obvious" that the Cavs could hardly beat anyone without James while the Lakers (according to some "analysts") did not miss a beat during Bryant's absence. Did Bryant, Kevin Durant or someone else clinch the MVP award because the Cavs put six players in double figures versus the Spurs without James? No--that would be an idiotic assertion to make. James has a Secretariat-style lead in this year's MVP race not because of one game here or five games there but because he has been the most productive player in the league throughout the season; Bryant made it a race for the first five weeks or so but since that time injuries have lowered his efficiency and productivity, though casual fans may be surprised to learn that despite the ups and downs Bryant's scoring average (27.7), field goal percentage (.458) and spg average (1.7) are very similar to the numbers he posted in 2007-08 when he won his first and only MVP (28.3, .459, 1.8): three important differences between 2008 and 2010 are that James has eliminated his skill set weaknesses (free throw shooting, defense, perimeter jump shot), Bryant's floor game has declined somewhat (6.3 rpg to 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg to 4.8 apg) and Bryant's free throw shooting and three point shooting have been less sharp (.840 and .361 respectively in 2008, .826 and .316 this season). With roughly three fourths of the season already in the books, one great game (or one subpar game) by any particular player or team is not going to significantly add or detract to the body of work already produced by the top two MVP candidates.

While we are on the subject of the MVP race, I don't understand why any names other than James' are even being mentioned at this point. James has been the best player in the NBA this season by roughly the same margin that Bryant was the best player in the NBA in 2006 and 2007 (though, ironically, Bryant did not win the MVP in either of those seasons); Bryant is clearly the second best player (based on the fact that he has led the Lakers to the second best record in the NBA while his overall production has been comparable to what he has done in the previous two years even though he has been less consistent from game to game) and the only issues that need to be sorted out regarding Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are their placements on the All-NBA First and Second Teams--none of those three outstanding players possess the all-around games that James and Bryant have. For quite some time I have been frustrated by the media's apparent quest to pump up the case of "new" MVP candidates at the expense of whoever is clearly the best player at that particular time: such distorted thinking is why Charles Barkley (in 1993) and Karl Malone (in 1997) won MVPs over Michael Jordan and it also is why Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant--the most dominant big man and best perimeter player of the past decade--only won one MVP each when they should have actually won at least three MVPs each (O'Neal should have won the 2001 and 2005 MVPs in addition to capturing the honor in 2000, while Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs prior to finally winning the award in 2008). James won the 2009 MVP over Bryant by a wider margin than he should have but this season James really should be a unanimous choice (which has not happened since O'Neal captured all 120 first place votes in 2000).

Back to the main subject at hand: What, if anything, can be learned from Cleveland's win over San Antonio? The answer is that this game provided some more evidence that the Cavs have one of the deepest and most well balanced rosters in the NBA. It is important to take a moment to specifically define those terms: "deep" refers to how many players on a team can effectively be a rotation player on a playoff team, while "well balanced" means that a team has sufficient depth at all positions/roles. Without Ilgauskas--a two-time All-Star who will not officially rejoin the Cavs for another two weeks or so--here is the Cavs' current depth chart (some players are listed more than once because they are used in multiple roles):

Center: Shaquille O'Neal (currently injured, but expected to return during the playoffs), Anderson Varejao

Power forward: Antawn Jamison, Varejao, J.J. Hickson, Leon Powe, LeBron James

Small forward: LeBron James, Jamario Moon, Jawad Williams, Jamison, Anthony Parker

Shooting guard: Parker, Delonte West

Point guard: Mo Williams, West, Daniel Gibson

Until Ilgauskas returns, the Cavs lack depth at center, which is why I recently suggested that their winning percentage may temporarily decline while they are forced to play "small ball"; however, the Cavs have gone 5-1 with the small lineup and only have six games remaining (including two meetings with Detroit, a home game against Indiana and a visit to Chicago) before Ilgauskas' projected return so perhaps I was overly pessimistic about Cleveland's chances.

The Cavs are absolutely stacked at the other positions. In addition to their three primary point guards, the Cavs can also use Parker at that spot (he played some point guard for Toronto). James can be a de facto point guard or shooting guard in certain matchups offensively or defensively. Furthermore, once they are at full strength again the Cavs will be able to deploy various "large" lineups with two or three big men paired with different combinations of two or three "small" players ("small" being a relative term, because Moon, Parker and James are each at least 6-6). O'Neal, Ilgauskas and Jamison are legit post up options in the half court set, while James and Hickson are improving their post games.

James, West and Williams can each create shots for themselves and for others; this is an important factor that is too often overlooked: West or Williams can anchor the second unit when James is on the bench and either player can be the primary facilitator for the entire game if James sits out. Few teams have three quality facilitators.

Jamison, Varejao and Hickson all do an excellent job of diving to the hoop for layups/offensive rebounding opportunities. Parker, Williams and Gibson are each shooting at least .415 from three point range, while James, Jamison and West all shoot at least .340 on three pointers.

Objectively evaluating the skill sets and production of LeBron James' teammates does not in any way diminish his abilities or take away from the tremendous season that he is having; it is just the honest, correct and proper way to analyze the sport.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 AM


Deflating Inflated Assist Totals

I only saw the tail end of New Orleans' 135-131 win versus Golden State, but during a late timeout Golden State's play by play announcer Bob Fitzgerald--noting that New Orleans' rookie point guard Darren Collison had been officially credited with 20 assists--said, "I'm going to say this politely but they need to watch the video of this game, because Darren Collison has about 13 assists." Jim Barnett, who is one of the best NBA color commentators in the business, agreed with Fitzgerald and cited a specific play in which a recipient of a Collison pass took "four or five dribbles" before scoring. Barnett correctly noted that an assist is not supposed to be handed out on such a play. Fitzgerald added that the New Orleans scorekeeper seemed to be "unclear about the rules" and that "this is something for the league to look at eventually." Barnett and Fitzgerald are not "homers" trying to belittle the opposing team--just seconds earlier, Barnett praised Collison's ability to get anywhere on the court off of the dribble, a trait that Barnett said Collison shares with top point guards like Chris Paul and Stephen Curry; Barnett and Fitzgerald are just confirming what I have documented on many occasions concerning the inflation of NBA assist totals, particularly regarding Paul (and now, apparently, this largesse is also being extended to Collison, who has replaced the injured Paul in New Orleans' starting lineup).

Collison's bloated assist total enabled him to break Paul's team record for assists in one game by a rookie and also tied Steve Nash for most assists in an NBA game this season. Fitzgerald is correct that the NBA should look at Collison's assists from this game. The NBA league office has more than once declared that box score statistics are reviewed and are subject to correction if any discrepancies are found; as a result of this review process, two triple doubles have been taken away from LeBron James, one because of an incorrectly credited rebound and one because of a bogus assist--yet the NBA has still not corrected some of the egregious errors that I have documented involving Chris Paul's assist totals, thus enabling Paul to set various team and league records in that category while also inflating his value in the systems used by "stat gurus" and undoubtedly increasing the MVP consideration that Paul received in previous seasons. Let me be perfectly clear: Chris Paul was the best point guard in the NBA in 2007-08 and 2008-09. However, there is also good reason to believe that his assist totals have been significantly inflated by overly generous scorekeeping. I don't know if this is because of bias, incompetence or a general loosening of scorekeeping standards but, whatever the reason, something should be done to correct such errors and to improve the overall accuracy of the scorekeeping process.

At a time when some writers are breaking their arms patting themselves on the back about supposedly being on the cutting edge of reporting about the alleged advanced statistics revolution it sure would be nice if the NBA and its scorekeepers took some steps to ensure that the most basic box score statistics are reasonably accurate; if we cannot trust the basic data then why should we believe in so-called advanced metrics that are 100% dependent on said data?

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:22 AM


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots

Even though game-winning shots are very exciting, it is much more important to be a clutch player than to simply hit clutch shots; it is more impressive and significant to be able to control an entire game--or at least large stretches of a game--than to hit one shot at the end, even if that one shot provides the final margin of victory. Kobe Bryant has nailed six game-winning shots this year but what really matters--as I noted in a recent post--is that he has carried the Lakers to victories in several games that they would have surely lost if he had not been so efficient and productive.

Still, I know that it is fun to look at highlights of game-winning shots. So, here is some video candy:

Unless you hate the Lakers or you are a fan of one of the teams Bryant victimized then you probably enjoyed watching that clip--but from a skill set standpoint two things are more important than the simple fact that Bryant made those six shots.

Regardless of where Bryant received the ball on each of those plays or what kind of shot he ultimately took, note how he squared his shoulders toward the target and utilized text book shooting form prior to releasing each shot. Even on the off balance bank shot that beat the Heat--a shot that Bryant called "lucky"--Bryant's shoulders were squared and his shooting form was correct despite the way that he had to contort the rest of his body to get the shot off. Bryant makes these late game shots for the same reason that he is so deadly during the first 47 minutes of the game: he has perfected his skill set in terms of getting open, squaring up his shoulders and shooting against even a well placed defender.

Although so much attention has been paid to these six shots, Bryant did a lot of work in most of those games prior to hitting those shots. Some morons--like a blogger who loves the Knicks, a team that plays defense about as well as he writes--say that if Bryant played better throughout the games then the Lakers would not need for him to hit game winners, but that idiotic contention is easily refuted by examining some brief back stories about the six games depicted in the above video:

1) Bryant scored a game-high 33 points on 12-25 shooting against the Heat on December 4. He also grabbed seven rebounds, just one fewer than his big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum each had.

2) Bryant scored a game-high 39 points on 13-28 shooting against the Bucks on December 16. He added seven rebounds (tied for second on the team) and four assists (tied for the team high) while playing a game-high 49:59 just four days after suffering an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his right (shooting hand).

3) Bryant scored a game-high 39 points on 13-27 shooting against the Kings on January 1. He also led the Lakers in assists (five) and ranked third in rebounds (five) while playing a game-high 47:14.

4) Suffering through back spasms, Bryant scored just 10 points on 5-11 shooting against the Mavericks on January 13; for most of the game he was an effective decoy, not committing a single turnover in 35:00 and drawing double teams that provided open shots for his teammates.

5) Bryant tied Bynum for team-high honors with 19 points (on 8-20 shooting) against the Celtics on January 31. Bryant led the Lakers with six assists in a game-high 44:58.

6) Bryant scored a game-high 32 points on 13-19 shooting against the Grizzlies on February 23. He also had a game-high six assists and tied for second on the team with seven rebounds.

The game-winning shots look good in the highlight video but check out Bryant's overall statistics from those six games: 172 points (28.7 ppg) on 64-130 shooting (.492). Bryant had game-high point totals in four of those games while also posting excellent rebounding and assist numbers--and those figures would be even better if he had sat out versus Dallas instead of fighting through back spasms (earlier this season, Bryant said that he thinks that part of the reason many players miss games with injuries that Bryant plays through is that those players are trying to protect their statistical averages).

There is nothing wrong with enjoying highlight videos of game-winning shots--but truly being a clutch player consists of a lot more than scoring a few timely baskets at the end of games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 AM