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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Scottie Pippen Completes His Journey from Hamburg, Arkansas to the Basketball Hall of Fame

Scottie Pippen was officially enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night. Pippen is one of the two dozen greatest players in basketball history, in the category right below the icons of the game who occupy the sport's Pantheon. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen comprised the most versatile--and, arguably, the greatest--duo in NBA history and one of the greatest tandems in sports history, period. Pippen's legacy is not merely about numbers and awards, although even just a sampling of his accomplishments proves that his resume is bursting with great statistics and many honors:
  1. 10 All-Defensive Team selections (tied with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett for fourth all-time behind Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bobby Jones)--including eight First Team honors (tied for third all-time, just one behind Jordan and Gary Payton)--plus seven All-NBA Team selections (including three First Team honors)
  2. 1994 All-Star Game MVP
  3. 1995 NBA steals champion
  4. First all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff steals, sixth all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff assists, tied for seventh all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff three point field goals made, 13th all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff points and 15th all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff rebounds
  5. In 1994-95, Pippen became just the third player in NBA/ABA history to lead his team in ppg, rpg, apg, spg and bpg in the same season (Julius Erving and Dave Cowens had previously accomplished this, while Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady would subsequently do so)
  6. Pippen played a critical role on six Chicago championship teams (1991-93, 1996-98) and he surprised a lot of basketball fans by leading the Bulls to a 55-27 record in 1993-94 after Jordan retired just prior to that season; if not for a horrible call by Hue Hollins, the Bulls likely would have advanced to the NBA Finals that season and possibly even won the championship
  7. Although Pippen is the second youngest member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team (forever known as the "Dream Team," they were enshrined collectively by the Hall of Fame on Friday) he hardly took a back seat to the established legends: Pippen led the squad in assists and ranked second in steals
Pippen's numbers are great--and probably better than many casual fans realize--but his legacy is based on the hard work and determination it took to travel the long journey (literally and metaphorically) from Hamburg, Arkansas to Springfield, Massachusetts. Pippen overcame numerous challenges and honed his body and his game to elite levels.

If you don't know how great Pippen was--or if you just would like a refresher course--check out these videos:

In the first two videos we see some great examples of Pippen's defensive virtuosity. Some people act like LeBron James invented the so-called "chase down" block but Julius Erving actually made that an art form in the 1970s and 1980s, while Pippen also had his share as well--but what made Pippen special as a defender was his versatility and completeness: he could literally guard any position, plus serve as a help defender, and he not only racked up steals and blocks but he took charges--and not fake charges by flopping but legit charges in which he stood his ground and took body contact to draw the foul.

As Coach Phil Jackson said, Pippen was "a one-man wrecking crew."

The next video showcases Pippen's all-around greatness: he could score from a variety of areas on the court, handle the ball like a guard, make great passes, rebound like a power forward and, as we saw in the first two videos, play tremendous defense.

I did a one on one interview with Pippen toward the end of his playing career and I was particularly struck by his response to my question about how he would like to be remembered:

"A gym rat. A guy who worked very hard to make sure that his game was complete in every area and wanted to be looked at as one of the best players in the league. Even though I probably never was (the best player), because I played with a great player, but that was my approach to basketball as a whole, being a guy who came from a small college. I wanted to be the best player in the game. Even though I played with the best player in the game, it was always in my mind that if I did a little bit more, if I became a little bit more complete, people would look at me as one of the best players in the game and not just look at the fact that I did not have the offensive skills that Michael had."


In case you missed it, here is Scottie Pippen's Hall of Fame induction speech:

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:37 AM


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kobe Bryant's Impact on the Lakers Goes Far Beyond What Statistics Can Measure

Quantifying something is very valuable, if it is truly possible to accurately do so--but there is no value in quantifying something if adequate measuring tools do not exist. I frequently use basketball statistics as a tool to illustrate a point about the performance of a player or a team but I make sure to indicate the limitations of what basketball statistics can quantify; for instance, while I do sometimes mention assist totals and averages I have also documented that assists are very subjective. I would never evaluate a player's playmaking ability based solely on his assist totals but if I watch a game in which a player has several legitimate assists then I will certainly mention this in a subsequent game recap.

It is much easier to accurately quantify individual player effectiveness in baseball than it is in basketball because baseball consists of a series of discrete actions that can be measured separately while basketball involves multiple players acting simultaneously and having various effects on other players. "Advanced basketball statistics" can provide some useful information about the relative effectiveness of various five man combinations but basketball "stat gurus" struggle to accurately determine the value of individual players; scientific measurements are supposed to involve a margin of error but have you ever heard a basketball "stat guru" mention a margin of error after supplying a "player rating" that is supposedly accurate to one or even two decimal points?

A "stat guru" can tell you that Kobe Bryant is more valuable than Shannon Brown but no one needs to do a scientific study to figure that out--and it seems like many "stat gurus" struggle with the concept that Kobe Bryant is more valuable than Pau Gasol, which is really funny considering how Gasol somehow morphed from a one-time All-Star into--by some accounts--the most versatile big man in the NBA simply by joining forces with Bryant a little more than two seasons ago. If you actually look at Gasol's numbers then you will note that, statistically speaking, he is essentially the same player that he was in Memphis except for two changes: his field goal percentage and offensive rebounding have improved. The reason for those improvements is obvious if you watch Lakers' games with understanding: Gasol's path to the hoop for easy baskets and offensive rebounds is made easier because opposing defenses have to focus on trying to contain Bryant.

As a result of playing alongside Bryant and being coached by Phil Jackson, Gasol has worked to add some physical strength and mental toughness in order to better hold his position on the post defensively, though it is hard to quantify Gasol's improvement in that regard (his shot blocking has not increased as a Laker, though he did average a career-high in defensive rebounds in 2009-10 after performing around his career norm in that department during his first season and a half as a Laker).

I can chart plays and write descriptive game recaps that deeply analyze how basketball players and teams really function but no matter how proficiently I do those things I will never convince a diehard "stat guru" that in order to accurately make an individual player rating one must somehow give credit to a player who draws a double team and thus blesses his teammate with a wide open shot or an opportunity to get an uncontested putback. I am not sure if this is because "stat gurus" are morons or because they have a strong economic incentive to insist that they alone know how to properly evaluate basketball players (though one could argue that both things may be correct in the sense that it is moronic to place a higher value on making money than searching for truth).

Kwame Brown is 28 years old and, in theory, should be in the prime of his basketball career, but the only time that he was a regular starter for a playoff team was in 2005-06 and 2006-07 with the L.A. Lakers. He had the best field goal percentage of his career in 2007 and the best offensive rebounding average of his career in 2006 (he also had his third best field goal percentage in 2006 and his third best offensive rebounding average in 2007).

I cannot "prove" that Bryant is a major reason why Brown and Gasol performed so much better in terms of field goal percentage and offensive rebounding but by watching many games involving those players one can certainly see recurring patterns of defenders swarming Bryant while Gasol and Brown head to the hoop (with Gasol obviously being a much more talented finisher and overall player than Brown). I do not pretend to know how to specifically quantify how much value Bryant adds to the statistics of post players who get to team up with him but I think that it should be obvious that a formula that pretends that all field goals and rebounds were obtained equally easily is flawed; there is a difference between Hakeem Olajuwon catching the ball on the block, being trapped because he is the focal point of his team's offense but still managing to score and Pau Gasol setting a screen for Kobe Bryant, rolling to the hoop and catching a pass for an uncontested dunk. Individual player ratings do not capture such nuances and do not factor in skill set considerations--i.e., a screen/roll set involving Gasol and another player would not be as effective if that other player does not possess Bryant's quickness, ballhandling skills, passing ability and shooting range: those things make Bryant almost impossible to guard in screen/roll sets, while most other players have a weakness that can be exploited in at least one of those areas (for instance, they can be forced to the left or dared to make a jump shot).

It would be great if someone could actually come up with a way to derive a number than accurately takes all of these factors into account but don't expect that to happen any time soon; after all, at this point the NBA is struggling just to properly keep track of the basic box score statistics that are the raw numbers that go into the formulas invented by "stat gurus." How can a "player rating" be definitive when it includes assist, turnover, steal and blocked shot numbers that are highly subjective? Even rebounds can be fishy at times when there are taps/tips. Rick Barry has long insisted that the only pure statistic is free throw percentage, because every other number can either be manipulated or is deceptive in some way (field goal percentage is presumably accurate yet it is deceptive because by itself it tells you nothing about a player's skill set in terms of shooting range and/or creating his own shot).

Then, there are other aspects of player value that are completely unquantifiable and yet very important. Bryant's leadership of the Lakers and of the 2008 Olympic team is unquestioned by any intelligent person who watched those squads compete but how does one "rate" leadership? I know that any self-respecting "stat guru" will respond that anything that cannot be quantified is meaningless and that leadership is a subjective factor that either does not exist or else is captured in some way by the boxscore numbers--but that is another example of thinking that is moronic and/or influenced by economic motives, because if a "stat guru" concedes that leadership is important while also admitting that he cannot measure it then his days of selling books are over.

LeBron James had every right to decide to sign with the Miami Heat but he deserves a lot of criticism for three things: (1) quitting during the Boston series, (2) refusing to try to recruit players to come to Cleveland and (3) turning his free agency situation into a narcissistic spectacle. The second point, in particular, makes for an interesting contrast with Bryant; for the past several years, James paid lip service to how important it was to him to win a championship as a Cavalier yet he consistently refused to help the Cavs recruit free agents to come to the team. Bryant has won two Finals MVPs while leading the Lakers to back to back championships but he is hardly resting on his laurels: this summer he has very actively helped the Lakers woo potential free agents, including players with whom he has had prior on court confrontations (Raja Bell, Matt Barnes). Bryant actually respects anyone who dares to stand up to him (including Ron Artest, who joined the Lakers last summer and played an important role in their most recent title run), which is very reminiscent of Michael Jordan's attitude: in his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith noted that Jordan would ride his teammates very hard in practice because he wanted to weed out anyone who was weak minded; Jordan figured that if you could not stand up to him on the practice court then you would disappear during crucial moments in a game. Similarly, Bryant seems to feel that players who confront him in games have the right attitude to be championship-level performers for the Lakers.

Artest played great defense throughout the playoffs and he had a great all-around performance in game seven of the NBA Finals but why was he even a Laker in the first place? Why did Artest display more focus during this season than at any prior time during his career? Artest has made it clear in several interviews that he took less money than he could have potentially made specifically because he wanted to be Bryant's teammate and Artest has also said that he is willing to follow Bryant's lead because he respects Bryant but that at previous times in his career he was not willing to follow his team's presumed leaders because he did not truly respect them.

There is no way to quantify leadership, heart, work ethic, determination--but that does not mean those things don't exist.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bob Dandridge Reconsidered

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest under the odd title "Sum of the Parts" (I restored the original title that I suggested and I deleted two sentences* that editor Brett Ballantini tacked on to the beginning of my article).

Bob Dandridge played a vital role on championship teams for two different franchises, but he was overshadowed by four teammates who were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld). Dandridge, a four-time All-Star who made the 1978-79 All-NBA Second Team ahead of such notables as Julius Erving, Bob McAdoo and George McGinnis, played in four NBA Finals, averaging 19.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 3.5 apg in 23 games.

Dandridge and Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) each earned All-Rookie First Team recognition as Milwaukee Buck teammates in 1969-70. The next season Milwaukee acquired Robertson to provide veteran backcourt leadership. Jabbar (31.7 ppg), Robertson (19.4 ppg) and Dandridge (18.4 ppg) led the Bucks to a league-best 66-16 record. Milwaukee went 12-2 in the playoffs, capping a dominant postseason run with a Finals sweep of the Baltimore Bullets.

Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry's Golden State Warriors lost 4-1 to Milwaukee in the 1972 playoffs and gained revenge in the 1973 postseason by defeating the Bucks 4-2. Barry speaks highly of Dandridge: "He was an outstanding player. He's one of those guys that you respect because you know that he is going to show up to play every night. (He was) a good shooter, he was kind of deceptive with his moves. He wasn't the kind of guy who was going to beat you with blistering speed and quickness but he understood how to get the most out of the talent that he had."

In 1974 Milwaukee went 8-1 in the Western Conference playoffs and seemed poised to win a second championship after beating the Boston Celtics 102-101 in double overtime in Boston in game six of the Finals, but the Celtics stunned the Bucks 102-87 in Milwaukee in game seven.

After that defeat the Bucks endured three straight losing seasons, mainly because of Robertson's retirement in 1974 and the trading of Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975. Prior to the 1977-78 season the Washington Bullets acquired Dandridge.

During TNT's NBA broadcasts, Kenny Smith frequently makes the point that winning NBA teams situate each player in a role that suits his skills--i.e., after the Cleveland Cavaliers obtained Jeff McInnis they moved Lebron James to shooting guard, alleviating the problem of either playing James at point guard or playing someone who should be a reserve point guard as a starter. Dandridge had precisely that kind of effect on the Bullets' roster; he assumed the starting small forward slot, enabling Kevin Grevey to move from forward--which he was not ideally suited to play--to shooting guard. Dandridge's speed provided a perfect complement to the inside games of his front court partners Hayes and Unseld.

Washington suffered significant injury problems in 1977-78 and the Bullets limped to a 44-38 regular season record. During the playoffs the Bullets won hard fought series against George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs and Erving's Philadelphia 76ers before taking the Finals in seven games over a deep, balanced Seattle Supersonics team coached by Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens. Dandridge played excellent defense against all-time greats Erving and Gervin, while also providing clutch scoring, including a game high 34 points in a 106-98 win in game two of the Finals, which enabled Washington to seize home court advantage.

In 1978-79 Washington had a league best 54-28 record. Dandridge displayed his versatility by ranking second on the team in scoring (20.4 ppg), assists (365) and blocked shots (57). The Bullets again faced the Sonics (52-30) in the Finals, this time losing in five games. Seattle guard Dennis Johnson, who shot 0-14 from the field in game seven of the 1978 Finals, dominated play in 1979 en route to the Finals MVP.

Cavaliers' coach Paul Silas was a power forward on those Sonics' teams and offers this summary of Dandridge's game: "He was a great shooter, especially mid-range, and he could get his shot off on almost anybody. He really understood how to play. When they needed a hoop--even when he was playing with Milwaukee and Oscar and those guys--he shined. Of course, with Washington he was one of the focal points of that team. He just had the uncanny ability of making big shots at the right time. He talked the game and understood it and imparted that (to his teammates). He was very, very smart about the game and how he fit within the scheme and how he wanted everybody else to fit."

* My original, strong lead sentence immediately tells the reader exactly why Bob Dandridge is a significant player even though his contributions to two championship teams have been overshadowed by the achievements of his more renowned teammates. Ballantini ruined that lead sentence by preceding it with this pablum: "The value of some of basketball's superstars is more elusive than others. Bob Dandridge is a perfect example of a player who made his teams better rather than settling for me-first superstardom."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM