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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2010-11 Includes Pau Gasol Feature Story, Kevin Durant Interview

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2010-11--available in stores now--includes a Pau Gasol feature story by editor/renowned Lakers authority Roland Lazenby and Jorge Ribeiro's interview with Kevin Durant. Lazenby asserts that Gasol's strong performances during the Lakers' back to back championship runs have done a lot to destroy the stereotype of European players as "soft." Durant discusses a wide range of issues, including his experiences playing for Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

I contributed five team previews this year: Charlotte Bobcats, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz. As usual, each team preview is followed by a 300 word sidebar story. Here are the sidebar subjects that I examined:

Charlotte: Michael Jordan is the first NBA player to become the majority owner of an NBA franchise.

Denver: The importance of coaching in general and the specific impact that George Karl's absence had on the Nuggets last season.

Oklahoma City: Switching from shooting guard to small forward sparked Kevin Durant's emergence as an elite NBA player.

Sacramento: Tyreke Evans posted LeBron-like rookie numbers but to truly become an elite player he will have to make the same kind of second year jump that LeBron James did.

Utah: A good case can be made that Deron Williams has emerged as the NBA's best point guard.

Most of what I submitted was published exactly the way I wrote it, though the first sentence of my Nuggets' sidebar was deleted ("Statistics can be valuable when used properly but some people insist that anything that cannot be quantified on a spreadsheet is not important") and this sentence was tacked on to the end: "Karl's health appears to be on the mend--and the entire NBA wishes him well and has nothing but admiration for the Nugget's (sic) coach--but his comeback remains yet another unanswered question for this franchise." One of the core tenets asserted by "stat gurus" is that coaching ultimately does not make that much difference. I disagree with that sentiment, noting, "Unlike baseball, basketball is a dynamic game, so it is difficult to accurately quantify each player's impact on a given play, let alone decipher the overall effect that a coach has." Naturally, "stat gurus" realize that it is not in their self interest to acknowledge the importance of anything that they cannot quantify (or at least pretend to be able to quantify)--but it is not coincidental that five coaches (Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich) have won 34 of the NBA's 64 championships.

The Bobcats officially added Sherron Collins to their roster after the article submission deadline, so I did not write the brief comments about him. Also, I think that if Larry Hughes is healthy he could play his way into Charlotte's rotation but my analysis of Hughes was deleted. Here is what I originally said about Hughes:

"Larry Hughes was once a top notch defender; injuries have taken away a lot of his athletic ability and he is now a player who does several things adequately but nothing exceptionally well. Hughes has always been an erratic outside shooter. If he can stay healthy then he can be a solid backup for (Stephen) Jackson."

Writing the team previews is always fun; I hope that readers are informed and entertained by my contributions and by the magazine as a whole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

The NBA in the 1970's: Mr. Clutch Finally Gets A Championship Ring

I wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the 2005 anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. This is the third of 12 installments reprinting that chapter in its entirety.

I have removed the footnotes that accompanied the original text; direct quotations are now acknowledged in the body of the work and I will post a bibliography at the end of the final installment. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.

Mr. Clutch Finally Gets A Championship Ring

The 1971-1972 NBA season saw numerous changes. The San Diego Rockets moved to Houston and the San Francisco Warriors became known as the Golden State Warriors. Lew Alcindor publicly adopted his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In March, Charlie Scott clinched the ABA scoring title, claimed a breach of contract by the Virginia Squires and jumped to the NBA. The Celtics owned his NBA draft rights, but allowed the Phoenix Suns to sign him in exchange for future considerations. Next season those considerations came in the form of rebounder deluxe Paul Silas, who would make significant contributions to Celtics' championship teams in 1974 and 1976. The Lakers changed coaches for the fourth time in six seasons, replacing Joe Mullaney with former Celtics' All-Star Bill Sharman.

Many observers scoffed at the idea that any coach could get the aging Lakers over the hump after so many years of near-misses. Sharman embraced the challenge and pioneered many innovations that are widely used today, including game-day shootarounds and the use of game film to discern opponents' tendencies. Sharman faced a delicate situation early in the season when Elgin Baylor struggled to regain his form after missing all but two games the previous season due to a knee injury. The Lakers started the season with six wins in the first nine games but it was clear that they played better with rookie Jim McMillian on the court than with Baylor, who could not keep up with the fast breaking style that Sharman was teaching the team. Sharman told Baylor that he valued his contributions to the team, but that it was in the best interests of the squad that he come off the bench. It was an awkward message to deliver to one of the game’s all-time greats. Baylor chose to retire rather than continue playing so far below his accustomed level.

After Baylor retired, Sharman named Chamberlain team captain. On November 5, 1971, the Lakers held a ceremony to honor Baylor; that night the Lakers also began a 33-game winning streak, shattering the record of 20 just set the year before by the Bucks. Ironically, the defending champion Bucks ended the streak with a 120-104 decision in early January.

The Lakers finished the season with a best ever 69-13 record (since broken by the 1995-1996 Bulls and tied by the 1996-1997 Bulls), winning the Pacific Division by 18 games. Gail Goodrich led the team in scoring (25.9 points per game), with Jerry West just behind him (25.8 points per game). McMillian chipped in with 18.8 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 14.8 points per game while leading the league in field goal percentage (64.9 percent) and rebounding (19.2 rebounds per game). Abdul-Jabbar repeated as scoring champion (34.8 points per game) and MVP, again leading Milwaukee (63-19) to the Midwest Division title. In the Eastern Conference, veteran John Havlicek teamed with youngsters Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White to guide the Celtics to the Atlantic Division title with 56 wins. The Knicks fell to second place (48-34), mainly because Willis Reed only played in 11 games due to injuries. Early in the season the Knicks traded Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth to the Bullets for Earl Monroe, but he was plagued by nagging injuries and struggled to adjust to his new surroundings, averaging only 11.9 points per game after scoring over 20 points per game in each of his first four seasons. The Bullets did not seem to benefit immediately from the deal either, falling to 38-44, although they did repeat as Central Division champions.

In his first full NBA season Spencer Haywood ranked fourth in scoring (26.2 points per game) and was selected to the All-NBA First Team. Seattle's 47-35 record was the best in the franchise's brief history but not good enough to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. Similarly, Connie Hawkins (21.0 points per game) and the Suns missed the playoffs despite a 49-33 record that would have been second only to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference. The first round of the playoffs went according to form, with each of the division champions advancing. In the Western Conference Finals the Bucks seized the home court advantage with a stunning 93-72 win in Los Angeles but the Lakers rallied to win in six games. The experienced Knicks triumphed over the up and coming Celtics four to one in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Knicks trounced the Lakers 114-92 in Los Angeles in game one of the Finals, but the Lakers won the next four games to claim the title. West, known as "Mr. Clutch" for his many game winning shots over the years, finally had his first championship ring. Ironically, he was hampered by injuries throughout the 1972 playoffs and he shot only 37.6 percent from the field, by far his worst postseason performance ever. West recalled the 1972 playoffs with mixed feelings: "I played terrible basketball in the Finals and we won. And that didn't seem to be justice for me personally, because I had contributed so much in other years when we lost. And now, when we won, I was just another piece of the machinery. It was particularly frustrating because I was playing so poorly that the team overcame me. Maybe that’s what the team is all about."

Chamberlain was without question the hero of the Lakers' playoff run. He played the fifth game of the Finals with a hairline fracture in his right hand and a sprained left hand. He came up with a huge performance in that game with 24 points and 29 rebounds, winning the Finals MVP. Interestingly, he did not receive the lasting acclaim for playing hurt that Reed did after his performance two years earlier, even though Chamberlain posted much better numbers than Reed did.

Chamberlain bristled at the suggestion that the Lakers won the title because he had somehow changed his game. "I have been shooting less for years now. I led the league in assists years ago. Where have you been?" He elaborated, "When I did not have shooters on my side and it was my job to shoot, I shot. Now we have shooters, so I don’t have to shoot. The things I have been doing, I been doing a long time--playing defense, blocking shots, rebounding, passing off…" Sharman had nothing but praise for his center: "He's always had a bad rap. Whatever they ask of him, he’s done. He's just doing more things better now that he is not mainly a scorer. He must block a zillion shots a game. And he scares guys out of other shots or makes them take bad shots. And when he gets the rebound, he gets rid of it fast to get our fast break going." Looking back on the 1972 season, one writer commented, "Wilt was the biggest thing in basketball last season, and not just because of his physical size. Though he gives away a few inches to Jabbar, he remains the most awesome specimen in the sport."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM

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