20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lakers' Practice Featured on NBA TV's Real Training Camp

On Monday, NBA TV broadcast an L.A. Lakers' practice during a three hour "Real Training Camp" episode. Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum did not participate in the practice because they are both recovering from offseason knee surgery but both players were on the sidelines; Bynum could be seen icing his knee, while Bryant watched the action intently and often offered suggestions/comments to various players. Ron Artest and Sasha Vujacic wore microphones but the two most disappointing things about the show are that Coach Phil Jackson did not wear a microphone and that NBA TV commentators Marc Fein and two-time All-Star/two-time NBA champion Norm Nixon kept up their ongoing, inane conversations as Jackson and various Lakers' assistant coaches instructed the players. The point of the broadcast should have been to give viewers the opportunity to listen to how Jackson runs a practice, not to hear Fein and Nixon banter.

Nixon repeatedly marveled at how simple and basic the practice was but I think that this deceptive simplicity is actually the touchstone of Jackson's coaching genius (as it was for John Wooden, Red Auerbach and Vince Lombardi); coaching is not about making things complex and it is not about the vaunted "in game adjustments" with which some media members are so obsessed: coaching is about preparing players in practice to deal with the most likely scenarios that will happen during games and coaching is about making sure that players are well schooled in the fundamentals. The Lakers practiced basic fast break drills, they practiced defensive rotations, they practiced how to pivot and they practiced how to run the Triangle Offense. Coach Jackson did not scream, he did not berate and he did not talk at length just to hear himself speak; Jackson simply explained what they were going to do in each drill and how the drill related to game action (for instance, the Triangle Offense drills prepared them to counter various kinds of defensive pressure with precise cuts, pivots and passes). I could not hear everything Jackson said but I did my best to tune out Fein and Nixon and to also read Jackson's lips when his face was on camera.

During one of the drills, the Lakers used the toss back device; old school fans probably remember when former ABA player George Lehmann demonstrated the toss back during one of those classic Red on Roundball sessions. The toss back consists of a panel of taut strings that can be deployed at various angles; players toss the ball at the panel and it comes back to them so that they can shoot, pass or rebound (depending on the drill). In this case, each player started at the top of the key, passed to the toss back, caught the ball and shot a jump shot from the free throw line extended; this replicates a Triangle Offense option known as the guard around (something that neither Nixon nor Fein explained), which you see many times during a Lakers' game: a player at the top of the key passes to a player at the free throw line who then pivots, sets a screen and gives the ball back to the first player for an open shot (the first player can also drive or pass after receiving the return pass, depending on how the defense reacts). So this seemingly simple drill actually teaches the players how to correctly deliver the first pass, how to catch the ball on the move and how to hit a shot that will be useful during game situations.

It would have been nice if either of the hosts would have provided some historical context about the toss back--and Lehmann--but Nixon merely mentioned that the toss back was used back when he played in the league. Neither he nor Fein said anything about Lehmann and they soon went back to talking over the coaches. Regular 20 Second Timeout readers may recall that Larry Miller--the ABA's single game scoring leader--told me that Lehmann was his favorite teammate: "If you gave him the ball he could shoot it but he could also pass it. When he was running the fast break, if he didn't shoot the ball he knew that I was on the wing somewhere and then I would get the ball and I could take that one step and take an easy jump shot."

The pivoting drills were very interesting. Jackson explained that there are inside pivots, outside pivots, inside reverse pivots and outside reverse pivots and that which pivot a player uses depends on where he is on the court and how the defense is guarding him. Players who pivoted incorrectly during the drills were gently corrected by Jackson or one of the assistant coaches. Pivoting is a vital skill for all basketball players (not just post players) and it is essential in the Triangle Offense; whether a player receives the ball in the low post, the high post or on the perimeter he must be able to make the right read, execute a crisp pivot and then pass, shoot or drive.

The Triangle Offense drills began with assistant coach Chuck Person shooting a free throw. If Person made the free throw then the players inbounded the ball, went down court and ran a Triangle Offense set that Jackson had just described, while if Person missed the free throw they rebounded the ball, scored and then inbounded the ball. Jackson described four different Triangle sets and had the first group of five players run each set before the next group of five players took the court. The four sets included (1) feeding a cutting big man in transition, (2) passing to the wing in the corner who passed back to a guard near the top of the key for a jumper, (3) a guard shooting a pullup jumper in transition and (4) a pass to the corner followed by a return pass to the guard, a ball reversal and a pass to a cutter (these descriptions may not be precise because I am working off of what I remember Jackson saying as I tried to tune out Fein and Nixon). Jackson emphasized the importance of proper spacing, correct footwork and good timing; the players must learn to read the defense and react accordingly, which is only possible if each player is in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

At one point, a confused looking Artest asked no one in particular if the Lakers had not taken a certain action out of the playbook last season. He then walked over to Derek Fisher and Fisher patiently explained that the option had only been taken out of the playbook for one particular playoff series. It sure would have been interesting to hear Nixon elaborate on that point but I guess I just have to be grateful that Nixon and Fein stopped talking long enough that I could actually hear the Artest-Fisher conversation. Artest then went back on the court and helpfully told the other players what Fisher had said. Later, Fisher and Pau Gasol tried to explain certain Triangle Offense options to Artest but instead of hearing Artest's microphone we heard Nixon and Fein talking. At one point, Artest marveled about how quickly new Laker Steve Blake has picked up the Triangle and he even asked Blake about this; Blake mentioned that he had come before training camp to do some work with Coach Jackson. Blake said that he already felt comfortable with the reads but was still a little confused about some of the terminology and Artest replied that during timeouts in games Jackson uses a lot of that terminology but even if the players don't understand what Jackson is saying they just go out on the court and make the right reads.

Those little glimpses sure explain a lot about how Artest played on offense last season!

After the practice, Nixon asked Coach Jackson what areas the Lakers most needed to improve and Jackson replied, "Last year, our bench didn't score very well for us at times and let us down in some of the ball games by not holding their end of the bargain up. We really wanted to build our bench a little bit with some experience and speed. Those are the two things. Luke Walton was injured last year, played 20 games. He really was kind of a playmaker off our bench, kind of held the glue together some times, and we missed him out there on the floor. This year if his injury or what he is dealing with right now becomes a problem then we have Matt Barnes who came in with great speed and quickness. Steve Blake is a experienced, playmaking guard who already understands a lot of the concepts of basketball that we are trying to emphasize. He looks like he will be a pretty good fit. He is not particularly a scorer but he will help guys get to the basket and score. Theo Ratliff is a guy who is an old dog in this game. He is an alligator, he knows how to go down there and wrestle and he knows how to block shots."

In other words--even though "stat gurus" (and certain so-called experts) insisted that Kobe Bryant would not have had to hit so many game winning shots if Bryant had not allegedly been so inefficient early in games--Coach Jackson confirmed what I repeatedly said about the Lakers' bench and their lack of depth.

Later in the interview, Coach Jackson revealed that he did not make his decision to come back until his doctor assured him that certain ongoing medical issues were not severe enough to possibly cause Jackson to have to miss extended periods of time during the upcoming season. Jackson also said that he spoke with Bryant, who urged Jackson to lead the Lakers on their quest to claim a second "three-peat" (which would be the fourth "three-peat" of Jackson's career) and who told Jackson that during the summer he had kidded LeBron James that James should find a city that James would be happy to play in and where he could win yet another regular season MVP--but that Bryant and the Lakers were going to capture the more meaningful prize, an NBA title.

Regarding James and the Miami Heat, Jackson said, "We're the champs but they're favored and I think that's a real incentive, a wonderful incentive for us."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:10 AM

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Monday, September 27, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Celtic Pride Reborn

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 fifth 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.

Celtic Pride Reborn

Wilt Chamberlain jumped to the ABA to be a player coach for the San Diego Conquistadors in the 1973-1974 season, but the Lakers successfully sought an injunction that kept him from playing for San Diego for one year. This was the same option clause that forced Rick Barry to sit out a year before joining the Oaks and that Connie Hawkins' representatives removed from his Pipers' contract so that he could join the NBA as soon as his case was resolved. The option only existed from the point of view of the team, which could choose to sign a player to a new contract when the original one expired or else restrain the player from signing with another team for a year; the player's "option" consisted of re-signing with the same team on their terms or losing a year's worth of earnings. This was a convenient way for the owners to restrict player movement and contain salaries but the cases of Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood and others were the first steps in eliminating this clause from standard player contracts.

The Lakers' championship hopes were dealt a second blow by injuries that limited Jerry West to 31 regular season games and a 14 minute cameo appearance in one playoff game before he retired. The Lakers acquired Hawkins from the Suns but he was no longer a star player. They also dealt Jim McMillian to the Buffalo Braves for journeyman center Elmore Smith, who led the league in blocked shots with a 4.85 per game average in the first year that the NBA recorded this statistic; Portland's aptly named Larry Steele averaged 2.68 steals per game as the NBA's first official leader in that category. The 47-35 Lakers won their fourth consecutive Pacific Division title but were no longer a legitimate title contender.

Oscar Robertson struggled with age and injuries in his last season but he, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bob Dandridge combined to lead the Bucks to their fourth straight Midwest Division crown with a league best 59-23 record. The Bulls and a fine Detroit Pistons team led by center Bob Lanier (22.5 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game and 3.05 blocked shots per game) rounded out the playoff field in the Western Conference.

Similarly, the Eastern Conference playoffs featured three established playoff teams and one newcomer. The Celtics won the Atlantic Division for the third straight year, this time with a conference best 56 victories, while the 47-35 Capital (formerly Baltimore) Bullets took their fourth Central Division title in a row. The veteran Knicks (49-33) and young Buffalo Braves (42-40) were the other participants in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Buffalo featured Bob McAdoo, a center who won the first of three straight scoring titles (30.6 points per game) while leading the league in field goal percentage (54.7), ranking third in rebounding (15.1 rebounds per game) and third in blocked shots (3.32 blocks per game). His shooting prowess was remarkable considering that many of his attempts were long jump shots, while his rebounding and shot blocking were impressive because he was undersized (6-9, 215) for a center. No less an authority than Bill Russell offered this high praise: "He's the greatest shooter of all time, period. Forget that bit about 'greatest shooting big man.'"

McAdoo scored 31.7 points per game versus Boston in the playoffs, but the Celtics won the series four games to two. The Knicks and Bullets squared off for the sixth year in a row and the Knicks won for the fifth time, taking game seven 91-81 in New York. The Bucks annihilated the Lakers in five games, while Chicago and Detroit slugged it out for seven games before the Bulls advanced after a 96-94 triumph at home. The Celtics avenged the previous year's loss to the Knicks with a five game victory in the Eastern Conference Finals, while the Bucks swept the Bulls in the Western Conference Finals.

The Finals proved to be a seesaw affair. Milwaukee won a dramatic 102-101 double overtime game six in Boston and seemed to have matters in control heading home for game seven. Instead the Celtics blew the Bucks out, 102-87. Dave Cowens scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. During an 18 minute stretch Abdul-Jabbar went 0-3 from the field, due mainly to Cowens' physical, aggressive defense, the Celtics' double teaming in the post, and tremendous defensive pressure on the Bucks' ball handlers. "Their team concept of pressure was more than we could handle. With all the adjustments we tried, we just couldn't cope with it. Boston is a great team with no weaknesses. At least I haven't been able to find any," commented Bucks' Coach Larry Costello. Havlicek averaged 27.1 points per game during the postseason and won the Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 AM

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