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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pat Williams' Quest to Understand the Winning Combination

Last year, I spoke with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams about a variety of subjects, including his book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball. I published that interview in two parts:

Interview with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President and Co-Founder Pat Williams, Part I

Interview with Orlando Magic Senior Vice President and Co-Founder Pat Williams, Part II

You can find out more about Williams here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Williams about his current writing projects, Dwight Howard's post game, the resurgent Boston Celtics and comparisons of LeBron James with great players from previous eras.

Friedman: "When we spoke last year, you mentioned that you were working on a couple books, one of which was titled Chicken Soup for the Soul: Athletes of Faith, and the other one being a second Chicken Soup book for basketball, though you weren't sure if they wanted to do a second basketball volume. What is the status of those two projects?"

Williams: "Quick update, the basketball version came out in February 2009. They are not doing a second version. The manuscript for the other Chicken Soup book has been submitted to the editorial people and it is called Chicken Soup for the Soul: Athletes of Faith. It is due to be published this September. We just finished putting the major pieces of it together earlier this week."

Friedman: "You had told me that you were gathering some material together--some more basketball stories--so do you think that you might publish those stories in a different format since the Chicken Soup people will not use them?"

Williams: "I can use some of them in different formats along the way, if they're applicable. My latest book, David, is coming out this week. It's called The Winning Combination: 21 Keys to Coaching and Leadership Greatness. That book is coming out even as we speak and that is my latest writing project. My son Bobby has had a career in professional baseball. He spent five years as a coach in the Cincinnati Reds farm system. In January 2005, the Washington Nationals hired him to manage in their farm system. He was 27 years old at the time, the youngest manager in organized baseball. I remember Bobby calling me with the news. His voice was up about three octaves and he said, 'Dad, what do I do now?' I remember thinking, 'I want to help my son.' So, I then began to ask coaches and managers, 'What are the four keys to being a good coach or a good manager?' That process has now gone on for about five years and I have asked that question to about 1500 coaches--current, future, past, I've tracked down everybody I could get to. I noticed in this process that there were repeated themes that kept coming up, there were principles that were repeated more often than others. After all that (information) came in, I noticed that there were 21 themes that were really predominant. I thought to myself that this is far more than just a coaching book; this is far more than help for my son as a baseball manager. This is a leadership manual from the greatest coaching minds of all time. So, that is the meat of the book, David. There are 21 chapters built around these 21 themes and I've had a marvelous time putting it together and I think that it can impact leaders at every level from the White House on down. We're excited that the book is ready."

Friedman: "You mentioned that there are 21 different keys or themes. Did you find one or two keys or themes that really recurred among the majority of the coaches you spoke with?"

Williams: "Yes, there was one that came up more than any other and in fact that is why it is featured in chapter one in the book. It is simply this: be yourself. I heard that more than anything else: be who you are. If you've got a personality like Billy Martin as a baseball manager, then be Billy Martin. If you've got a personality like Walter Alston, the great Dodger championship leader, then be Walter Alston--but don't try to be somebody you are not. The second one that came up more than any other is the importance of strong character, specifically honesty: tell your players the truth, never lie to them--if they catch you in a lie then you are in deep trouble, you are doomed. The third one that we wrote about is the amount of work that it takes; you cannot succeed in the coaching business unless you have an incredibly strong work ethic. Those are three that came up very often."

Friedman: "I am always interested to read about leaders and to read about coaches. One of the things that I find very interesting is a quote from Red Auerbach. I don't know if you've heard this quote or if it is mentioned in your book. Someone asked Red Auerbach about how he 'handled' Bill Russell and some of the other players when Auerbach was the coach of the Boston Celtics. Auerbach kind of took umbrage at the question and he said, 'You handle animals but you deal with people.' Auerbach felt that it was wrong for coaches to treat players like animals. You have to treat them like people and they are each individuals: you treat everyone fairly but you don't treat everyone the same way. Did that specific story come up in your research?"

Williams: "That is a great story. It fits in with the tenth chapter, 'Care for your players as people.' If you want them to play well for you, play hard for you, perform well then they have to know that you are interested in them and that you take time with them. They have to feel you every day, even if it is just for a few seconds, that you are a human being and not just a machine out there to help them be successful as a coach. That dovetails with what you are talking about with Coach Auerbach and I do vividly remember him talking about that: 'You handle animals, you don't handle people.'"

Friedman: "Right."

Williams: "That definitely is a key principle."

Friedman: "If you remember our last conversation, I asked you a lot of questions about your time with the Philadelphia 76ers. I was a big 76ers fan growing up and I think that I am the biggest Dr. J fan of all-time, though I am sure that there are a lot of people who also think that they are his biggest fan. Did you talk to Billy Cunningham for this project and, if so, can you summarize one or two points that he made?"

Williams: "Yes, I talked to Billy, Billy was certainly included. I think the thing that is so interesting about Billy is that as a player for the 76ers he was not a good practice player. Practice to him was more of a nuisance than anything. After he became a coach, practice became very important to Billy Cunningham--very important. One of the principles that came from him is make sure you are organized and prepared and have every practice planned out. Don't wing it. The players will know and that will absolutely unravel things. So Billy, as a coach, took a whole new view about the importance of practice."

Friedman: "The coach who is the Red Auerbach of this generation in terms of winning NBA championships is Phil Jackson. Did you have an opportunity to speak with him and, if so, what contribution did he make to the book?"

Williams: "Yeah, I talked to Phil. Phil is interesting, always fascinating to me. I am a huge admirer of Phil Jackson and he told me the story of his college coach Bill Fitch--the long-time NBA coach--and how Bill Fitch had to discipline Phil Jackson when Jackson was a college player--captain of the team--and had broken some rules. That, to this day, has left a deep imprint on Phil Jackson, so talked about the importance of having discipline on a team. He also talked about the importance of knowing each player individually because they are all different people and that you can't treat them all the same: you've got to work with them individually and study them and know them as human beings. That is very important to Phil Jackson."

Friedman: "That is interesting, because what you are saying about Phil Jackson is very similar to what we were just talking about concerning Red Auerbach, that you have to deal with each player individually--you don't treat them like animals and you don't treat them all the same, either. You can treat two different people fairly and yet you treat them differently based on what their personalities are, what their needs are, their roles on the team and so forth. It is interesting that Jackson's approach, in some ways, mirrors Red Auerbach's approach because they have been the two most successful NBA coaches in terms of winning championships."

Williams: "It has become very evident to me as I am working on all of this--I wrote a book last year about Chuck Daly called Daly Wisdom and my next writing project later this fall is Bear Bryant on Leadership--and really studying the lives of all of these coaches that at the end of the day it comes down to people skills and (taking) interest in other people. They may have done it in different fashions and had different personalities but they absolutely cared about people and they were interested in their people and they were loyal to their people--maybe even to a fault. That was a huge part of their success as coaches."

Friedman: "I'd like to shift gears a little bit and ask you some questions about the current NBA season. You know that this question is coming, we all saw the (first two) games (of the Eastern Conference Finals) and I know that it is not very pleasant for you but overall what are your impressions of the first two games of the series between the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics? What stuck out to you watching those games?"

Williams: "I am impressed with Boston. They have kind of been below the radar screen all year. They have not had a dominant season. People have not really taken them seriously as title contenders but I am impressed with how focused they are, how tough-minded they are, how determined they are. They came into our building--and it's a cauldron, believe me, I mean it's a hot box down here--and they weathered it and came out of here with two wins, which is almost unheard of. So, that's my immediate reaction. Secondly, we have not played well at all. We struggled in both games but, even with that, down the stretch of both games we had a chance to pluck two victories with a play here or a play there. So, after shooting 41% and 39% in these two games we still had a chance to win both games. So, I think that should be encouraging; at some point, I've got to think that we're going to play well--really play well: hopefully, it will be Saturday night in Boston. That would sure help."

Friedman: "I'm sure you remember--although the home/road situation was different--that your 76ers built a 2-0 lead versus Portland in 1977 and then Portland came back to win the series. It is not common in NBA history but from that unpleasant personal experience you know that it is possible for a team to do that."

Williams: "I remember it vividly. We beat Portland in those first two games in 1977 and it looked like we had that series under control and then we proceeded to lose four in a row. I remember in 1984, the year after (the 76ers won) the championship, we played the Nets in the first round and lost the first two games in our building, the Spectrum. Then we went to New Jersey, in the Meadowlands, and beat New Jersey twice on their court, so now it's 2-2. Then we turn around and come home for game five in the Spectrum. Guess what happened?"

Friedman: "You lost. Unfortunately, as a Dr. J fan I remember that well."

Williams: "We lose...Some weird things can happen in the playoffs but the bottom line is that we have to play better, we have to defend better and above all we have to shoot the ball better. A lot of the shooting woes, however, are because of the Celtics' defense. They have done a very good job with us defensively and made it very difficult to score."

Friedman: "Speaking of Boston's rise, I don't think that anybody--maybe even in their own locker room--saw this coming based on the fact that they were essentially a .500 team for the last two thirds of the regular season. I am interested to hear your impressions of the Boston-Cleveland series. How surprised are you that Boston won? I also want to hear your opinion on a much discussed topic: how LeBron James performed in that series, particularly in the home losses for Cleveland in game two and game five. How surprised were you by that series and what did you think, as a long-time NBA talent evaluator, of LeBron James' performance?"

Williams: "Like so many basketball fans, as it was all unfolding I think everybody thought that Cleveland would win but now, from this perspective at the back end of it, Cleveland had no business winning and they shouldn't have won. The series ended exactly as it should have. Boston is a better team. Boston is deeper. Boston has more weapons. Boston has more versatility. Boston deserved to win and they would probably win if they played that series five more times. That is my reaction. Secondly, LeBron was forced to--let me put it this way: the Celtics' defense had a lot to do with why LeBron did not play great in every game. Watching their defensive schemes, they're good. They have made life miserable for every one of our players--every one of them. So, there is a reason why Cleveland struggled in that series and why LeBron struggled. Defensively, the Celtics gave them fits and that is why they won the series. That is my capsulation of it."

Friedman: "The Cleveland Cavaliers have had the best regular season record in the NBA the past two years. This year, they could have probably matched their win total (66) from 2009 if they had not shut things down for the last several games. They dominated the Lakers and they played well against you guys and against Boston. How could it be true that they are at such a talent deficit or depth deficit if they can go through a long regular season and be the best team? How could it be that all of a sudden in the playoffs they don't have enough talent? How is that possible?"

Williams: "David, if you could have been in our building last night (for game two of the Eastern Conference Finals) then you would not have asked that question. It was actually a cauldron here last night, so intense, so much noise, so much pressure you could hardly breathe--you could hardly breathe, let alone dribble or shoot a basketball. The difference between the regular season and playing this deep in the playoffs is the difference between grade school and college. That's my reaction. To play at this level at this time of year--not everybody can do it. Only the special players can survive at this level at this time of year and Boston has a bunch of grizzled old veterans who have enough left in their legs that they are rallying for one last shot (at winning a championship) and they're good. The regular season and this level of the playoffs--two different worlds. Cleveland, as it turns out, was structured beautifully for a long term pull--I mean, they really dominated the league--but they were not capable, their structure would not allow them, to function fully at this level. They were not good enough."

Friedman: "Following up specifically on what I asked you about LeBron, I was at Cleveland's home games in that series, so I had an up close and personal view and I agree with everything you said about how exceptional Boston's defense is but if you watched game five--if you really had a chance to see that game in particular--LeBron was very passive in that game; he spent most of the game not just behind the three point line but so far behind it that he wasn't even a threat if the ball had somehow been reversed back to him: he was too far behind the line to even shoot. He had a very, very passive approach--particularly offensively--and a lot of people have commented about that, particularly people who have frequently seen him play. Were you surprised by how passive he was? I don't know anyone who watched that game who was not struck by the obvious difference--LeBron played so much more passively than he played in other games throughout the year. He just did not look like himself and no one can figure out why he did that."

Williams: "David, I don't know if we'll ever know the answer to that. Obviously, with this elbow issue we don't know what the status of his health was or how he felt. Maybe that will just be a mystery but I think that in the long run it didn't matter because Boston was the better team. Maybe the Cavaliers sensed that. The players are not dumb; they know what's going on. Maybe they just sensed that Boston had too much for them. I don't know. We're struggling to figure out the psyche of our team as opposed to trying to figure out what's going through their heads right now."

Friedman: "I understand."

Williams: "I'm not privy to anything on the inside with Cleveland. You know, we expect LeBron to go get 40 every night with 15 rebounds and 10 assists. Anything other than that, he had a bad day. The same thing with Dwight Howard: he's got to get 30 points every night, 20 rebounds, five blocked shots or (people say) he didn't have a good game. When you are at that level of accomplishment that is a heavy burden, because nobody is happy unless you produce those gigantic numbers."

Friedman: "Speaking of Dwight Howard and in line with what you said about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs, how important do you think it is for him to develop the kind of low post offensive repertoire that would compel the top defensive teams to double team him? If you didn't double team Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1990s, he was going to score 35 or 40 points--and sometimes he would put up those kinds of numbers even if you did double team him. How important is it for Howard to develop that kind of repertoire or at least a more diverse repertoire than he has now?"

Williams: "He's working on it, David. He's 24 years old and he just finished his sixth year in the league so there is still a lot of growth left for him. He is primarily a defensive player, when you think about it: he was the Defensive Player of the Year, he made the All-Defensive First Team and Matt Guokas--who has been around the NBA (since the late 1960s)--would tell you, he's made the statement publicly, that he feels that Howard is a better defensive force than Bill Russell."

Friedman: "Yeah, I saw that quote."

Williams: "That's a pretty powerful statement from a guy who has been around the NBA (for decades) as a player, as a coach and as a broadcaster. Matty has seen it all. So the offense of Dwight has got some catching up to do but he's getting there and he's working on it. He works hard every day and he is adding a little more diversity to his game. Is he ever going to be an 80% free throw shooter? Probably not. Will he ever develop a deadly 15 foot jump shot from the baseline? Doesn't look like it--maybe he could but it doesn't look like it. But around the basket, he's getting a bit more clever and his footwork is improving. Each year he gets a little bit better and we probably will not see the best of Dwight Howard until his late twenties. I think that is when most big men mature. It is probably going to be another five years until we really know who he is."

Friedman: "I don't think that the issue is for him to develop a jump shot, though it would be nice for him to improve his free throw percentage, but what I meant specifically with my question is for him to have even an abridged version of the Kevin McHale low post repertoire--maybe no one else is ever going to have the full version of what McHale called 'the torture chamber'--something that he could really rely on in terms of, say, the jump hook is his move and then if that is stopped then he has a counter move with a spin (to the baseline) that he is confident in doing. During the game two broadcast Jeff Van Gundy said that Dwight is working on different moves but he doesn't have the confidence to use those moves at certain moments. Obviously, if you don't have confidence to use those moves versus the Celtics or at certain moments then that is a problem. It's fine to be able to do it in February or against the Clippers but in order for that to work against elite teams he would have to have confidence in those moves at that stage of the season. When I watch him, it seems like the top teams--the Lakers in the 2009 Finals and Boston now--feel like they can guard Howard by putting one big guy on him and then if he gets in foul trouble they'll just bring in another big guy but they don't feel like they have to double team him and that gums up the works for your three point shooters because they are not getting free now."

Williams: "There is no question that Boston is defending him the right way and they have the people to do it. (Kendrick) Perkins is a very good low post defender. He is big enough to muscle Dwight. Rasheed Wallace comes in and does his thing. 'Big Baby' (Glen Davis) is overmatched but yet he is strong enough physically. So they have some good pieces who can come in and duke it out with Dwight and I don't blame them. I'd single cover him, too, and put pressure on our three point shooters. Boston has the pieces right now to combat our offense, so we'll see what the coaches can come up with and hopefully we can overcome this."

Friedman: "The makeup of your team is interesting. Historically, teams that have won championships with dominant centers, most of them have been able to pair that dominant center with a rebounding power forward. If you look at the teams that your 76ers played (in the late 1970s and early 1980s), Portland's Bill Walton had Maurice Lucas, Washington had Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, Boston had (Robert) Parish and (Kevin) McHale, the Lakers had Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and A.C. Green. More recently, fans would remember Tim Duncan and David Robinson. There are more teams in the NBA now and it seems like there are fewer back to the basket big men than there were in previous eras. Is that model somewhat obsolete--that you have to have that kind of power forward alongside the great center--or would you say that your team is built in a little bit of an unorthodox manner compared to the traditional manner?"

Williams: "Obviously, we would love to have the true prototype power forward, the kind of guy who gives you double figure rebounds and double figure points. There are not a whole lot of them out there. I'd be grateful to find one. That is kind of a dying breed as well. The Paul Silas-type, the Bill Bridges from another era, I remember them well--Dave DeBusschere. They are great guys to have but they are hard to find. So, yes, we are a little bit unorthodox; (Hedo) Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis would probably not be your ideal (power) forward rotation (on last year's Magic team) and we probably don't have it now but you take what you've got, run with it and adjust from there."

Friedman: "What you are saying is that it is basically a matter of trying to maximize the personnel that you have; it's not necessarily that someone at some point had the idea of breaking the mold and doing things differently but rather you looked at the personnel that you have and the personnel that are potentially available to acquire (via the draft, trades and free agency) and decided that this makes the most sense."

Williams: "This was not us sitting down and saying that we are going to be absolutely off the charts here. When Rashard Lewis became available as a free agent we got him and after you get talent you slot people in from there. There are certain pieces that are hard to get and power forward seems to be a very dying breed. I don't know where they are. Where are the Maurice Lucases of another day? I guess they are Carlos Boozer or Pau Gasol. They are very difficult to find, just as centers are. Where are all the great big men? I'm looking at this draft coming up; there are no big men in this draft."

Friedman: "You're right, absolutely."

Williams: "Where have they gone? What's happened to the gene pool?"

Friedman: "I think that there are still players of that size but their mentality is different. They all want to shoot jumpers, they all want to do crossover dribbles. They don't want to be the somewhat anonymous guy on the weak side getting 10 rebounds like A.C. Green."

Williams: "Good concept; I guess we'll never really know. Those guys are awfully valuable and hard to find."

Friedman: "I don't know if you saw or heard about this, but there is a prominent writer who, after the Boston-Cleveland series, compared LeBron James to Julius Erving--not entirely in a favorable or, in my opinion, even an accurate way. His message was that people have been trying to compare LeBron to Magic or to Jordan but maybe LeBron is Dr. J--maybe LeBron is too nice or too deferential to be the lead guy on a championship team. One flaw that I find in his argument is that to buy his premise you have to ignore the first part of Dr. J's career when he led two ABA teams to championships; Dr. J also led the 76ers to three NBA Finals before you added Moses (Malone) and the problem that Dr. J had (in the NBA) is not that he was being deferential but that he ran into teams that had Hall of Fame centers and he did not have a Hall of Fame center (before playing with Malone). However, disregarding for a moment the obvious flaws in what this writer is suggesting, I am interested if you even agree with his basic premise that you cannot win a championship with a quote unquote nice guy as a leader--a LeBron or a Dr. J--and that you have to have a guy who is a quote unquote killer the way that Jordan was and the way that Kobe is. Do you buy that premise, do you agree with that or not? What is your overall take on that whole idea?"

Williams: "Listen, you get those guys, you get Michael Jordan, you get Kobe, you get Larry Bird--they were killers: they wanted to embarrass you, they wanted to step on your throat, carve your heart out. Bill Russell, the same way. Those are wonderful attributes of the winners--they actually are--but I don't think you can implant that or transplant that into somebody else. It's a great quality, if you want to win ball games you take those kinds of talented people who want to carve you to pieces as well--whoa, you'd give anything to find them, that kind of mentality. So, Bill Simmons' piece, he's great at trying to figure out who slots where and who belongs in what category, so he linked LeBron and Julius with one word: 'amaze.' The word that captured them is 'amaze,' that every day they want to do something that would amaze people--which they did. I spent a decade with Julius in Philadelphia and there was no finer person, no better teammate, no better ambassador for the league--but to say that he didn't have a Michael Jordan personality or a Kobe personality: probably not. We are who we are as people and what you see with LeBron at this point, that's who he is."

Friedman: "Do you agree with Simmons' premise that a player with that personality cannot be the best player on a championship team? Do you agree with his premise or do you disagree?"

Williams: "Well, I'm not sure I'd say that. If you want to have a dynasty, you try to find the best players that you can. What are you going to say, 'We're not going to take LeBron because he doesn't have a Michael Jordan killer instinct'? No, you get a franchise player and then you try to surround him with the best supporting cast you can. That's why we went out and got Moses Malone in the summer of 1982. We always needed somebody to do the dirty work inside. They've done that in Cleveland. They've done everything they can to surround him with the best pieces they can. I don't fault Cleveland management at all but, David, it is hard to find good players. There is a limited pool of them. It is very hard to find them."

Friedman: "You brought up the point with Moses and I think that the piece of analysis that is missing from what Simmons wrote is that the time period when you were the General Manager of the 76ers was really a different era. At that time, unlike now, you could not win a championship if you did not have a Hall of Fame caliber center who was an all-around player. Recently, we have seen teams like the (2004) Pistons and different teams in recent years win championships or get to the Finals without necessarily having the best big man in the league or a Hall of Fame center; you can win the way that the Bulls did (in the 1990s) with Jordan or the way that the Lakers did (in 2009) with Kobe. The 'flaw' with Julius Erving had less to do with him and more to do with the fact that he was going against teams that had Hall of Fame centers--the Blazers, Bullets, Celtics and Lakers--and he didn't have one. I think that Simmons missed the larger picture--it's not a matter so much of Dr. J's personality being like LeBron's personality but rather that Dr. J played in a different era in terms of the pieces that you need to win a championship.

I'm sure that you have heard the rumors of what might be going on with LeBron and John Calipari and I am not going to ask you to address that specifically but I want to ask you a hypothetical, generalized question about when you were involved in player personnel decisions as a General Manager. If you had been in a situation where you had the opportunity to get an MVP caliber player and that player came to your team saying 'If I'm going to sign with you, you have to hire this coach and/or bring in that player,' what kind of reaction would you have to that kind of scenario?"

Williams: "Oh, I don't know. It's happened, I guess, obsessionally. Let me just say this, David, this whole free agency thing is so tender and the league has made it very clear that they don't want NBA people to comment on it and there is such risk involved. The only thing I can say to you is that the summer of 2010 is almost upon us. For this much-anticipated summer, teams have been rearranging contracts, they've been trading players, they've been clearing cap room, they've been getting ready for this tumultuous summer of 2010--and here it is on our doorstep! The most gigantic game of musical chairs in NBA history will start to be played--or, will it?"

Friedman: "Right, or will those players stay with their original teams?"

Williams: "We have no idea. Nobody has any idea, other than it's going to be a very, very intense summer and when the game of musical chairs ends the question is, 'Who will be sitting in which chair?' You guys will have plenty to cover this summer, that's for sure."

Friedman: "I just want to say that I wasn't trying to get you fined or get you in trouble; I phrased the question as a hypothetical one dating back to when you had been a General Manager and it also obviously does not apply to your current team in terms of cap space or in terms of coaching. I wasn't trying to back door a LeBron question but I just wanted your perspective on a larger issue because, since you were a General Manager and a player personnel executive for so many years, you are one of the few people who actually could have been in that kind of hypothetical discussion. For all we know, that story that was reported may not even be happening at the moment--"

Williams: "That is a rumor right now."

Friedman: "Right."

Williams: "I think that right now the teams that are coach-less, as I am following it, are having intense interviewing sessions with many kinds of coaches and they seem to be on top of everything. I think that they want to hire a new coach as soon as possible, across the board. That's my sense. They don't want to wait. Free agency doesn't start for another seven weeks and I don't think that they would want to be coach-less all the way through June."

Friedman: "I agree. That's a risk."

Williams: "I think that you are going to see a lot of coaches get hired pretty quickly."

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Los Angeles Versus Phoenix Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #3 Phoenix (54-28)

Season series: L.A. Lakers, 3-1

Phoenix can win if…the Suns are able to produce high percentage scoring opportunities in the open court by getting defensive stops and pushing the ball before the Lakers can set up their half court defense. Steve Nash must break down the Lakers' point guards off of the dribble in order to create open shots for his teammates and himself. Amare Stoudemire has to assert himself not only offensively but also defensively and on the glass. The Suns also need Jason Richardson to be a consistent scoring threat, forcing Kobe Bryant to expend energy defensively.

L.A. will win because…the Suns have no answer for Bryant, who averaged 27.5 ppg on .544 field goal shooting in four regular season games versus Phoenix. Bryant typically scores prolifically and efficiently versus the Suns: in 2008-09 he averaged 28.3 ppg on .467 field goal shooting against the Suns and in 2007-08 he scored 31.3 ppg on .537 field goal shooting versus Phoenix. The Lakers have won the regular season series versus the Suns 3-1 in each of the past three years.

The Suns' problems defending Bryant are compounded by the fact that it will also be difficult for them to match up with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the paint. If the Suns double team Bryant, then Gasol or Bynum will have a field day.

Other things to consider: Kobe Bryant sat out four of the Lakers' final five regular season games to rest his injured right knee but the time off did not cure whatever was ailing him and he clearly did not have the usual bounce in his legs when the playoffs started. Although he rescued the Lakers in game two of the first round versus the Thunder by scoring 39 points--including 15 in the fourth quarter--Bryant did not really hit his stride until game five of that series: the Lakers had an extra off day and the well rested Bryant asked for--and received--the responsibility of checking young Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Bryant's suffocating defense enabled the Lakers to win that pivotal contest and then they closed out the series behind his 32 points on 12-25 field goal shooting in game six.

Bryant seemed like the Kobe Bryant of old--as opposed to an old Kobe Bryant--as he averaged 32.0 ppg on .523 field goal shooting in the Lakers' sweep of the Utah Jazz, scoring at least 30 points in each game. Bryant is the only player to score at least 30 points in four straight playoff games versus the Jazz--and he has accomplished this feat twice. Bryant's 32 point performance in game four against Utah marks the seventh straight time that he has scored at least 30 points in a potential closeout game on the road, breaking the NBA record held by Elgin Baylor.

It cannot be a comforting thought to the Suns that Bryant will have had a week of rest prior to game one of this series.

Through 10 playoff games this year, Bryant is averaging 26.9 ppg while shooting .457 from the field, .375 from three point range and .790 from the free throw line. The Lakers are 6-0 when Bryant scores at least 30 points but just 2-2 when he scores 24 points or less. Bryant shot at least .455 from the field in five of his six 30 point games but shot .444 or worse from the field in three of the four games in which he scored 24 points or less. As I have insisted since the playoffs began, the key factor for the Lakers to be successful is for Bryant to average at least 26-28 ppg while shooting .450 or better from the field; those levels of productivity and efficiency by Bryant force opposing teams to tilt their defenses toward Bryant, opening up easy scoring opportunities for Bryant's teammates.

This may seem odd to say, but the Cleveland Cavaliers' premature ouster from the playoffs aids the Lakers' quest to win repeat titles. The Cavs--with their deep rotation of big guys--matched up better with the Lakers than any other playoff team in either conference and they wore down the Lakers during both regular season meetings. The Celtics probably match up better with the Lakers than the Suns or Magic but the Magic--who did not match up real well with the Cavs--will probably take out the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. So, when LeBron James decided to spend game five of the Cleveland-Boston series wandering around aimlessly behind the three point line he changed the theme of the 2010 playoffs from "Win a ring for the 'King'" to "Win a ring for the thumb"--Bryant now has a great opportunity to capture his fifth championship, tying Lakers legend Magic Johnson and moving to within one title of Michael Jordan.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM

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Don't Believe the Historical Revisionism About the Cavaliers

It is easy to forget that not too long ago the Cleveland Cavaliers were considered to be a deep and talented team that was favored to win the NBA Championship. Very few people publicly predicted that the Boston Celtics would beat the Cavs. As the Lakers' Pau Gasol recently said, "I'm not going to lie, I had Cleveland getting to the Finals. It's been surprising."

In the wake of Boston's Eastern Conference semifinal win over the Cavs it has become fashionable in some quarters to suggest that the Cavs were not really that good, that LeBron James carried the team as far as it could go and that Mike Brown got outcoached--but those statements are demonstrably false: the Cavs had enough talent to post the best record in the NBA for two years in a row, overcoming injuries and adjusting on the fly to various personnel moves. The Cavs accomplished this by being a defensive-minded team and that is a reflection of Mike Brown's coaching. If one great player could lead a team to 60-plus wins without any help then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Micheal Jordan would have never played on sub.-500 teams. Why doesn't Mike Brown get any credit for presiding over LeBron James' transformation from an indifferent--at best--defender to an All-Defensive First Teamer? Yes, James had to put in the individual work but he also needed someone providing guidance and devising an overall team defensive game plan.

In the process of reviewing Cleveland's playoff run, I just watched ABC's broadcast of Cleveland's 96-83 victory over the Chicago Bulls in game one of the first round. Analyst Jeff Van Gundy made several very interesting comments and observations during that game:
  1. Mike Breen opened the telecast by correctly stating that anything less than winning a championship would be a disappointment for the Cavs and then he asked Van Gundy what would be the "key" for the Cavs to accomplish that goal. Van Gundy replied, "I think that there are three things. First, they've got to keep defending like they've defended since Mike Brown took over: they're a top three defensive team. Secondly, Mo Williams has to play well. Last year in the Orlando series, he did not play well enough--or shoot well enough--for them to win that series. Finally, LeBron James has to continue to be the best player in the NBA, which he has been for the last two years."
  2. Early in the game, Van Gundy declared, "To me, Cleveland is a far superior team to what they had last year--the ability for (Antawn) Jamison to spread the floor more, (Shaquille) O'Neal can get centers in foul trouble and provide an offensive rebounding presence. I think they have a much better team this year." Mark Jackson then said, "I agree with you. I think the reason why, you look at the versatility--they can throw out multiple lineups and guys can play multiple positions. It allows them to match up with different teams when you talk about playoff basketball."
  3. A few minutes later, after sideline reporter Lisa Salters mentioned that LeBron James had told his teammates before the game that the regular season is over and "You know what time it is," Van Gundy said, "If I (were) him and had given that speech, I would have looked around and said, 'I'm really good. We're not losing. I'm the best player in the NBA. Come on.'"
  4. During a discussion about the job that Vinny Del Negro did as Chicago's head coach, Van Gundy made a point that also applies to Cleveland's Mike Brown: "I'll tell you this: you're never a good defensive team in this league by accident. You're a good defensive team because of coaching and a commitment."
  5. Near the end of the first quarter, Breen said of the Cavs, "(General Manager) Danny Ferry has done an unbelievable job in terms of assembling the players around LeBron James and this bench--it's like a good bullpen in baseball: if you need a lefty reliever to go up against a lefty batter, you've got it; if you need a tall wing player to go up against a quick wing player, you've got it. They've got an answer for everything that the opponent throws at you."
  6. After Jackson said that by the time James' career ends he "is going to be in the discussion" about who is the greatest player ever, Van Gundy said, "To me, he is already in that discussion."
  7. Those who think that James can start stacking up championships by setting up shop in Chicago should keep in mind what Van Gundy said early in the second half: "I just don't think that they (the Bulls) have even close to the talent level of Cleveland. I just don't even think that they are in the ballpark talentwise." I still contend that in a seven game series Cleveland's reserves--including Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, Jamario Moon and Daniel Gibson (five players who have started for NBA playoff teams, the first three of whom started for Cleveland's 66 win team in 2008-09)--could be competitive with the Chicago Bulls' starting five. If you disagree, then just go back and watch the April 8 game when a full strength Bulls team that needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive barely beat a Cleveland team that rested LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West (and sat other key players down the stretch when the game was up for grabs).
So why is a deep, talented, defensive-minded team led by a two-time MVP sitting at home now? One problem, which I mentioned in March as a possible stumbling block for the Cavs, is that Shaquille O'Neal's thumb injury prevented Coach Brown from having the opportunity to firmly establish his player rotation prior to the playoffs. In a piece that ran in the December 8, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell--who earned his last two titles as a player-coach--wrote, "How close can great teams get to reaching team ego and ignoring individual accomplishment? It's tougher to coach an excellent team than a poor one--there are never enough minutes or enough shots." The challenge of coaching a great team is compounded when several of the key pieces of that team do not have much time together on the court prior to the playoffs. Yes, I picked Cleveland to win the championship anyway because I thought that the Cavs could overcome this obstacle but that evaluation was based on a big assumption--one of the three "keys" that Van Gundy mentioned prior to Cleveland's first playoff game: I assumed that LeBron James would be highly motivated, highly focused and highly productive.

I declared prior to game six of the Cleveland-Boston series, "The bottom line is simple: even the best game plan in the world will fail if the team’s best player does not invest his mind, heart, body and soul in the process of trying to win a championship." The best player sets a tone for his teammates to follow: if he plays hard then they will do so as well. The number one reason that the Cavs lost to the Celtics is that at some point, for some as yet unknown reason, James became disengaged from the process of leading Cleveland to a championship; we saw signs of this during Cleveland's game two loss to Boston and the whole nation "witnessed"--to borrow a catch phrase--his listless play during game five. The Cavs owned a 2-1 lead in this series after blowing out the Celtics in Boston, so it is pretty silly to suggest that the Cavs simply could not match up with Boston; they only could not match up with Boston when James acted like he could not wait for the playoffs to be over.

What about James' much discussed elbow problem? That injury may be real but it is also a red herring in terms of assessing blame for the Cavs' playoff failure: the Cavs publicly stated that the MRI of James' elbow revealed no structural damage and GM Ferry said after the Boston series ended that there is no reason to believe that James will need surgery. James was officially diagnosed with an elbow bruise but that problem was not serious enough to prevent him from firing several half court shots prior to game six versus Boston and it clearly was not serious enough to limit his range of motion during games, as demonstrated by a number of plays that he made during the postseason. As TNT's Kenny Smith said, if James had not shot a late game free throw versus the Bulls lefthanded--after swishing a free throw with his normal motion--no one would have even suspected anything was wrong because James did not seem the slightest bit impaired.

It is easy to say that James' teammates should have stepped up--and it is true that overall Mo Williams (the second of Van Gundy's keys for a Cleveland championship run) had a disappointing playoff run--but it is hard to play offense four on five; during the fifth game of the Boston series, James spent far too much time camping out so far behind the three point line that he was not even a credible threat to shoot if the ball came his way. The Cavs might have been better off without James during game five (and possibly game two as well), because if he had sat out then other players would have known from the start of the game that they had to fill bigger roles--but as long as James was on the court you could sense that his teammates kept waiting for him to snap out of his funk and do something.

For the past two years I have picked the Cavs to win the NBA championship; during each of those regular seasons they affirmed my assessment that they were the best team in the league by winning more games than any other team but then they fell well short of the ultimate goal, not even advancing to the NBA Finals. The Cavs dealt with various challenges during those seasons but think about some of the things the last two NBA championship teams overcame: the 2008 Celtics were thrown together in one offseason and survived two tough seven game series (including one against Cleveland) before winning the title, while the 2009 Lakers won despite a broken finger suffered by Kobe Bryant, a knee injury that vastly reduced starting center Andrew Bynum's effectiveness and some very inconsistent play by their bench.

Few teams just coast to a championship without having to surmount tough obstacles and each of the four teams remaining in this year's playoffs have responded well to a variety of challenges:

1) The Lakers have overcome multiple injuries suffered by Bryant, yet another knee injury to Bynum and a bench that has become even more erratic.

2) The Suns improved defensively despite having to constantly hide point guard Steve Nash at that end of the court and they survived the loss of starting center Robin Lopez.

3) The Magic seamlessly added two players to their starting lineup in the offseason and lost point guard Jameer Nelson for 17 games due to injury.

4) The Celtics battled the aging process, injuries and some chemistry problems.

In other words, whoever wins the 2010 NBA title will have dealt with issues at least as severe as anything the Cavs faced. It is indisputable that the Cavs have significantly upgraded the talent surrounding LeBron James since he led the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and yet they have regressed in terms of postseason success. Some people argue that this means that the Cavs must add even more talent to their team but I think that at this point it is fair to ask how perfect of a scenario LeBron James needs in order to win a championship. It is so tiresome to hear "stat gurus" proclaim that if James played for the Lakers they would go 80-2 and win the championship every year while if Kobe Bryant played for the Cavs their record would be much worse than it has been with James; leading a team to a championship is about more than just posting gaudy individual numbers: it is about doing whatever your team needs you to do in crucial situations--and it surely is not about wandering around passively behind the three point line while your team gets blown out at home in a crucial playoff game. There is no way to really know what would happen if Bryant and James "traded" supporting casts (though I think that the "stat guru" take on the matter is nonsense), but I can guarantee you this: if Kobe Bryant had a teammate--any teammate, from an All-Star to the 12th man--who played as listlessly as James did in game five Bryant would get right up in his face and demand more from him. Bryant feuded with Shaquille O'Neal not about the nonsense that the media liked to focus on but rather because of O'Neal's lax training habits and Bryant has not hesitated to confront any of his current teammates when their effort and/or toughness has been lacking. Bryant's style may not win points with the media and its value may not be quantifiable but it produces championship results. LeBron James likes to declare that he is a no excuse player but Kobe Bryant does not have to say that because with the kind of effort he puts forth he knows that he will not have to make any excuses.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 AM

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