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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Magic Roll the Dice, Go for Broke

In two separate transactions with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, the Orlando Magic shipped out Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus and Marcin Gortat in exchange for Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Earl Clark. The Magic advanced to the NBA Finals in 2009 but after essentially swapping Turkoglu for Carter they lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and they currently have just the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference; it is not surprising that the Magic decided to dramatically alter the roster surrounding MVP level performer Dwight Howard but it is far from clear that the Magic have improved their chances to win a championship .

Neither the Suns nor the Wizards will be factors in the championship chase this season, so let's focus on what these moves mean for the Magic. Carter and Lewis started for the Magic at shooting guard and power forward respectively, while Gortat is arguably the best backup center in the NBA and Pietrus is an excellent wing defender who also shoots very well from three point range, connecting at a career-high (and team-high) .391 rate from long distance this season. Neither Carter nor Lewis have been as effective or efficient this season as the Magic had hoped they would be but Arenas and Turkoglu are hardly setting the world on fire: Arenas is gunning away (17.3 ppg on .394 field goal shooting) for a losing team, while Turkoglu (9.5 ppg, his lowest output since 2003-04) has looked apathetic (and pathetic) since scoring a big free agent contract. Richardson is easily the most productive player from this group (team-high 19.3 ppg for the Suns this season, shooting .470 from the field and .419 from three point range) but the big picture problem is that Orlando will either have to play small ball (Howard is the only legitimate power player currently on the Magic roster)--not likely a winning plan versus Boston's army of bigs or against Miami's All-Star trio--or else package Richardson in a deal to add some bigs to play alongside and/or back up Howard.

The popular myth about Orlando's 2009 Finals run is that Turkoglu was the key player (other than Howard) because he made plays for others and took over in the fourth quarter but Turkoglu's importance has been exaggerated; if you either looked at the numbers and/or actually watched the games then you know that it was Rashard Lewis, not Turkoglu, who proved to be a matchup nightmare for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. Even if you believe that Turkoglu was vitally important back then, there is every reason to think that Turkoglu has peaked--his age, the arc of his career and the way that his performance dropped after he got paid all indicate that his best days are behind him.

Arenas is vastly overrated as a clutch performer; even when Arenas was in his prime a few years ago I did not consider him to be an elite player and I confidently predicted that he would never lead a team past the second round of the playoffs. Arenas had some good games in Washington's first round loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2006 playoffs--which was four years and several injuries ago--but he also had some very inefficient games during that series: in three of those six games he shot .417 or worse from the field (not to mention his Karl Malone-esque choke job at the free throw line to close out game six of that series) and his career playoff field goal percentage is just .411. The theory/idea that he is going to create shots for himself and/or his teammates against elite teams during the crucible of playoff competition is unproven to say the least--he certainly will create shots for himself but it is doubtful that most of those shots will be good shots. Arenas' shot selection and matador defense will provide much fodder for Coach Stan Van Gundy's "Wired" segments during national TV telecasts!

Arenas is not a pure point guard nor is he a better player than Richardson at this stage of their careers so it will be very interesting to see how Coach Van Gundy constructs his starting lineup and overall rotation. In theory, Howard, Turkoglu, Quentin Richardson, Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson should start with Arenas providing scoring punch off of the bench but that starting lineup is not only small up front but it is defensively challenged at multiple positions. It is also far from certain that Arenas will accept and/or be productive in a reserve role (he has started 453 of his 486 career regular season games).

It looks like the best case scenario is that the Magic turn into Phoenix Suns East--bombing away from three point range in the regular season only to get pushed aside by the Celtics or out "run and gunned" by the Heat in the playoffs--while the worst case scenario is that Turkoglu's complacency, Arenas' questionable attitude and the team's general lack of defensive focus results in the Magic fading completely from championship contention. A third scenario would be for the Magic to package Jason Richardson in a deal to obtain some bigs, enabling Coach Van Gundy to use a more orthodox starting lineup with a traditional power forward; if the Magic pull that off and if Arenas turns out to be a reasonably productive starting shooting guard then the Magic could potentially have enough size and scoring punch to deal with the Heat in the playoffs but they still would not match up well with the Celtics.

I don't blame Orlando's Otis Smith for proverbially "pushing his chips to the center of the table" and trying to win it all while Dwight Howard is in his prime (and before Howard potentially becomes a free agent) but I am very skeptical that these moves improved the Magic's championship chances.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 PM

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lakers Jump on Pacers Early, Cruise to 109-94 Win

The Lakers threw a powerful one-two punch to knock out the Indiana Pacers 109-94 in front of a sellout crowd of 18,165 fans in Conseco Fieldhouse: Pau Gasol landed the first blow with 21 first half points (avenging his poor performance in the Lakers' previous meeting with the Pacers this season) and then Kobe Bryant delivered the second blow with 25 second half points. Bryant finished with a game-high 31 points on 11-18 field goal shooting (including 4-8 from three point range) and he tied for game-high honors with six assists while grabbing three rebounds and not committing a turnover in 34 minutes; Gasol tallied 28 points on 10-17 field goal shooting, adding eight rebounds and four assists. Lamar Odom had a strong game (13 points, game-high 17 rebounds) and Ron Artest contributed 13 points on 6-8 field goal shooting. After the game, Bryant noted that he simply played within the flow, serving as a distributor in the first half when the defense was focused on him and then taking open shots when the defense shifted a bit in the second half. Darren Collison led the Pacers with 17 points and six assists and his backcourt partner Brandon Rush scored 16 points.

The Lakers led 5-0 less than a minute and a half into the game and after they pushed that margin to 15-4 at the 8:30 mark of the first quarter they led by double digits the rest of the way. The Lakers led 36-22 after the first quarter, shooting .737 from the field (14-19) and outrebounding the Pacers 13-3; by halftime, those numbers were 59-37, .610 (25-41) and 27-10, turning much of the second half into what Marv Albert likes to call "extensive gar-bage time." After a solid start to the season the Pacers have lost three in a row, four of their last five and six of their last eight, though they did face some very tough competition during that stretch--including road losses at Utah, Phoenix, Atlanta and Chicago prior to this home defeat at the hands of the two-time defending NBA champions.

Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien was very disappointed with his team's effort: "I'm not happy with the way we competed, in all candor. You've got to bring a certain ethic to the games and, frankly, we haven't. You compete against 29 teams and if you don't bring it, you can lose the game." Collison agreed with O'Brien's assessment, adding, "I still feel like our effort wasn't there all the way. Coach had a good game plan. It's nobody's fault but the players...If we can play a little harder, we should be fine."

Though the Lakers won easily, after the game Bryant praised the Pacers (though his reference to them playing hard is likely a general assessment and not a description of this game): "I like them. I think they play extremely well together. They play hard. They're well coached, they execute well and I'll be very surprised if they are not in the playoffs."

It seemed like Bryant would probably get the fourth quarter off since the Lakers appeared to be in total control but Lakers Coach Phil Jackson put Bryant back in the game at the 5:56 mark of the final stanza with the Lakers leading 98-79. Coach Jackson explained, "I thought that it was a good time for Kobe to get back and stabilize the game. We didn't want them to score 100 points after only giving up 37 points in the (first) half." I mentioned to Bryant that in each of the past couple years he was banged up for almost the entire season and I asked if this is the healthiest that he has been in quite some time; he replied, "Yeah. I feel really, really good right now. Hopefully it will continue."

Much like TNT's Kenny Smith does not show his "pictures" during the halftime show when a game is a blowout, I am disinclined to provide in depth analysis of this kind of rout: the Lakers are the more talented team and they were highly motivated/focused because the Pacers beat them earlier this season, while the Pacers came out flat and never matched the Lakers' intensity.

However, even though the game's story is not particularly interesting I do have an interesting story from the game, namely my conversation with a veteran NBA scout who offered some very candid and insightful comments on a wide variety of subjects. He stated without equivocation that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, declaring, "LeBron's interested in his brand. Kobe is interested in championships." The scout added, with admiration, that Bryant is a killer on the court, in the mold of "#23 (Michael Jordan) and that guy sitting near the baseline wearing a suit (Pacers President Larry Bird)."

The most fascinating part of our conversation concerned what it means to be an MVP level player and some of the fallacies concerning how "stat gurus" evaluate the NBA game. When I told the scout the way that Coach Jackson answered my question about what it means to be an MVP level player (see Courtside Notes) he agreed completely, noting that there is a big difference between being a team's main option and being a team's second option: an MVP level player "performs under duress" (Jackson's phrase) in terms of overcoming nagging injuries, fighting through fatigue, dealing with physical play/double teaming defenses and still finding a way to lead his team to victories; a second option player is able to perform at a high level at times--particularly when the defense is tilted toward the first option--but he cannot sustain quite the same level as the first option can nor can the second option overcome quite as much "duress."

I mentioned that many "stat gurus" contend that Gasol is actually more valuable than Bryant and the scout immediately retorted, "That just shows their stupidity. You watch this game and it is very clear who the best player is, the way they defer to him--and they should." I noted that the "stat gurus" simply look at Gasol's high field goal percentage and his rebounding numbers without examining why he is producing those statistics: Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding increased after he joined the Lakers largely because of the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws. Few All-Star players get to play one on one very often, but Gasol has that luxury whenever he and Bryant are on the court at the same time, particularly if they are involved in a screen/roll action together.

Gasol averaged over 20 ppg for the first few weeks of this season and suddenly many observers touted him as not only the Lakers' best player but a legitimate candidate for league MVP--but then his performance declined significantly, with fatigue being cited as the major reason. It is legitimate to wonder how Gasol could possibly be so fatigued this early in the season after resting up this summer by not playing for Spain in the FIBA World Championship; asked about this after the Lakers' 103-89 victory over the Wizards on Tuesday night, Coach Jackson candidly admitted that he too is surprised by how worn down Gasol is, blunting stating that Gasol has played "poorly" recently and "really faltered" after his excellent start.

Gasol's performance this season is an excellent illustration of the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" and validates what I have been saying about Gasol for the past several seasons: Gasol is an excellent player but he is hardly an MVP level player. In contrast, Bryant has been carrying an MVP level workload for the better part of a decade, making the All-NBA First Team eight times while averaging at least 24.0 ppg every season since 2000-01. Bryant is regularly double teamed and is always the primary focus of the opposing team's defensive game plan, yet he is consistently productive at a very high level, often playing through injuries that would sideline most other players (it is no secret that Bryant and Jackson were not pleased with how long it took Gasol to recover from his hamstring injury last season).

I told the scout that I thought that teaming up with Bryant transformed Gasol from a one-time All-Star into a likely future Hall of Famer not because Gasol's skill set has fundamentally changed but rather because Gasol is now in a perfect role as the second option on a championship team, as opposed to being the first option for the first six seasons of his career when he could not lead the Memphis Grizzlies to a single playoff victory.

The scout agreed with my analysis and told me his own story of "stat guru" follies: a "stat guru" had said to him that the scout's NBA team should start the players with the five highest field goal percentages because field goal percentage is such an important statistic. The scout chuckled and shook his head, incredulous that the "stat guru" did not understand/would not accept that high field goal percentages can be an artifact of a player's role on the team and that a well balanced starting five must include ballhandlers, shooters and big men: "What are we supposed to do, start five centers if those guys have the five highest shooting percentages?"

Although the scout agrees with my take on Bryant and Gasol, he disagrees with me a bit concerning the Miami Heat. The scout thinks that the Miami Heat are best served with Dwyane Wade as the leading scorer and LeBron James as the de facto point guard, though he said that they really are essentially co-number one options; I expressed my belief that--all things being equal--size matters in the NBA and that since Wade is essentially a smaller James in terms of skill set strengths and weaknesses it seems to me that James is the Heat's best player and should be the primary option. The scout countered by asking rhetorically if I think that Gasol is better than Bryant merely because Gasol is bigger and I replied that Bryant has a more complete skill set and competes better under "duress" so the analogy of James-Wade to Bryant-Gasol is not valid; the scout conceded that point but maintained that even though he agrees with me in general that size matters in the NBA he still thinks that the Heat are best served with Wade as the primary option.

What I am most interested to see this season is what happens if/when the Heat play the Celtics in the playoffs and a game is up for grabs down the stretch: who controls the ball for the Heat and what does the other guy say in the heat of the moment (no pun intended) after the game if the Heat lose? James and Wade are both used to monopolizing the ball down the stretch, so someone is not going to be very happy if he does not have the ball and the team loses.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Jackson's pregame standup I had the opportunity to ask him several questions:

Friedman: "How would you compare the performance of your bench this year with the addition of (Steve) Blake and (Matt) Barnes to the performance you got out of your bench last season?"

Jackson: "There were (good) moments last year but we weren't consistent. We had a bench that played relatively well two years ago until Jordan Farmar got hurt in late December and was out for a month. So our bench has not been consistent (since December 2008) and this is the year that we were kind of really bent on getting a consistent performance from our bench. Last night they played well, although they were outscored by the Washington bench; Shannon (Brown) scored, Blake and Barnes did not score (much) but they played a good floor game and I thought that they carried the duration of the game when it was important in the second quarter."

Friedman: "Early in the season, Pau was mentioned as an MVP candidate but lately he seems to be struggling with playing so many minutes. You have coached several players who won regular season NBA MVPs. How important is it for an MVP level player to be able to sustain playing 35-40 minutes per game for a whole season, not just for a two to three week stretch and then start to wear down?

Jackson: "Yeah, I really think that it is performance under duress that counts for MVPs. It is a guy who picks his team up and carries the team and helps you win ball games that are important ball games when it seems like the team is going to lose; whether it is a guy playing 34-36 minutes or 38-42 minutes doesn't really matter. It's that critical moment. Pau has not performed well down the stretch for us in the last few games and I think that is a point that we like to emphasize (to Pau) about why people are given those kinds of credentials, like MVP credentials."

Friedman: "What memories stand out for you from coaching in Indiana? This might be your last trip here, if this is your last season."

Jackson: "I was telling our staff that we had a really hard time winning in this building in the early going. Indiana had some great teams and we would come here on a Sunday and Shaq would still be rubbing his eyes and just waking up from his sleep and we'd be out there sleepwalking and getting our butts kicked by an Indiana team--and we had really good basketball teams at the time. So, that is what stands out about this arena. In the old arena, it's got to be the Bulls-Indiana series in--what was that, 1998?"

Friedman: "Right, 1998 Eastern Conference Finals."

Jackson (with a mischievous twinkle in his eye): "We got cheated out of a couple games here--"

Friedman: "The (Reggie) Miller push (to get open for a game-winning shot)?"

Jackson: "Yeah and then Larry Bird went on the air and said that Pippen was fouling Mark Jackson all the time, so Pippen could not guard him (as relentlessly) the next two games here--he had foul trouble just like that. It just got kind of messed up in that series but we won in seven games--but that was a hard fought series and one that I think that people remember."

Friedman: "Was the way that that game seven was a grind in 1998 similar in any way to the game seven of the NBA Finals this year? Both games had low shooting percentages and a lot of offensive rebounding."

Jackson: "Yes, it was--and I have seen a number of game sevens that have been like that, where it takes one quarter to break the game open or to make a winner out of a team. It is just a grind all the way through because everybody knows everybody else's moves and you're just going at it physically."

I think that when some people look at game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals they focus far too much on shooting percentages and asserting that players choked, thus betraying their failure to understand the nature of such contests as eloquently described by Coach Jackson. The Lakers claimed the championship with an 83-79 game seven victory by capturing the pivotal fourth quarter 30-22 as Bryant scored 10 fourth quarter points "under duress" (to borrow Coach Jackson's phrase), finishing with a game-high 23 points and a remarkable 15 rebounds from the shooting guard position. I love Coach Jackson's comment after that game: "It was not well done, but it was done."

***

Here are links to my articles about the Lakers' previous four visits to Indiana:

Lakers Pound Pacers in Paint, Roll to 118-96 Win (January 28, 2010)

"Fortuitous" Murphy Tip-In Lifts Pacers Over Lakers (December 3, 2008)

Basketball Clinic: Kobe Mentors Bynum, Lakers School Pacers (November 21, 2007)

A "Sad" Performance for the Lakers at Indiana (February 3, 2007)

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:05 AM

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is Wrong With the Cleveland Cavaliers?

The story of the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers has been a tale of two seasons so far; they started out a solid 7-9--not a bad record considering the well documented offseason turmoil that the franchise experienced--but they are currently in the midst of an eight game losing streak, with seven of the defeats by double digit margins. Five of those losses took place on the road and four of the losses were to teams that are expected to be strong playoff contenders (Boston, Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City) but there is no getting around the fact that during most of this stretch the Cavs have looked overwhelmed and--most disturbingly--disinterested, a marked contrast with how hard they played during the first 16 games.

The funny thing is that despite how awful the Cavs have been recently they still are on pace to win more than twice as many games as a certain yahoo predicted that they would win but the measuring stick for a successful season cannot be to simply exceed a ludicrous prediction by an unqualified NBA "expert." Commentators and fans want to pretend that the Cavs' performance this season is some kind of referendum on the strength of LeBron James' 2009 and 2010 supporting casts but that is ignorant. The 2009 and 2010 Cavs were defensive-minded teams coached by Mike Brown and run on the San Antonio Spurs' model, while this year's Cavs have gone in a new direction under Coach Byron Scott, who has a much different personality and coaching style than Brown; Brown was an easygoing coach who hesitated to call out players publicly and whose top strategic concerns all revolved around defense, while Scott is a former NBA player who will publicly rebuke players who do not perform up to his expectations and whose teams run the precise, intricate Princeton Offense developed by Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril (Carril and Scott were both assistant coaches with the Sacramento Kings). That is not to say that Brown ignored offense or that Scott ignores defense but the Cavs did things a certain way for several years and are now adjusting to a coach who has a different approach and a different demeanor. In addition to the coaching change it is important to emphasize that the 2011 Cavs' roster is significantly different from their 2010 and 2009 rosters. Four of the nine Cavaliers who averaged at least 20 mpg during the 2010 regular season are no longer members of the team; five of the eight Cavaliers who averaged at least 20 mpg during the 2009 regular season no longer play for Cleveland.

Obviously, LeBron James is by far the most significant player who left but the 2011 Cavaliers have a much different player rotation and coaching philosophy than the 2009 and 2010 Cavaliers did. In order to truly have a referendum on the strength of the 2009 and 2010 Cavaliers teams without James we would have to see those rosters otherwise stay intact with the same coach and play a complete season sans James--and don't talk about the Cavs' 2009 and 2010 record in a handful of scattered games without James, during many of which the Cavs rested multiple other starters: that sample size is too small and too skewed to be meaningful.

The current Cavs team, led by former All-Stars Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams plus defensive stalwart Anderson Varejao, has enough talent to win 40 games and claim the final Eastern Conference playoff berth. Why has this team gone into such a tailspin? One game early in a long season should not make or break a team but it is evident that the Cavs are having a "pity party" amongst themselves in the wake of the overblown spectacle surrounding LeBron James' return to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat. That Cleveland-Miami game was the Cavs' only scheduled nationally televised contest this season and it was not being broadcast because anyone expected to see a competitive basketball game; no, the interest revolved around a ghoulish fascination with what might happen in the arena: would a fan rush the court, would people throw things at LeBron James, would there be some kind of riot? That is a terrible atmosphere for a basketball game. Cleveland fans hoped/expected that some kind of miracle would happen and that a team that has a legitimate shot at the eighth seed would rise up and beat a team with three young stars that is on a championship or bust mission. The Heat have a few weaknesses but the Cavs are not currently able to exploit any of them: the Heat are vulnerable against teams that have strong inside games and/or a quick, penetrating point guard but the Cavs are also lacking in those areas. James has yet to prove that he can lead a team to victory over an elite squad when it matters most but he certainly has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to rise to the occasion against inferior teams when he feels personally challenged (just ask the Washington Wizards, who foolishly engaged in trash talking battles with James during several lopsided playoff series). The spectacle in Cleveland was tailor made for James to have a big game so that the national media could once again fawn over the team that they prematurely anointed as a dynasty in the making. Meanwhile, the Cavs got embarrassed on their homecourt and they alienated their fans by seeming to be too chummy with James. I think that the whole situation negatively affected the Cavs' morale. Is that a valid reason/excuse to go on a long losing streak? Of course not--but anyone who watched the Cavs play before and after the Miami game knows that the Cavs simply have not looked the same since James came to town. The Cavs need to forget about James and the Heat and start focusing on realistic, obtainable goals for this season, namely playing hard every night, outexecuting/outhustling the sub-.500 teams and at least being competitive against upper echelon teams.

Even when the Cavs looked better in the early part of the season, there were some indications of potential weaknesses. The Cavs lack paint presence both offensively and defensively. In recent years the Cavs were a big, long team not just because of James starring at small forward but also because of the presence of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and (last season) Shaquille O'Neal. Yes, those guys did not play huge minutes or put up awesome statistics but if you understand basketball then you know that having a legit seven footer who can play alters things at both ends of the court. O'Neal is a key member of the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics, starting at center in place of the injured Kendrick Perkins; the Heat have gone 13-4 since inserting Ilgauskas into their starting lineup. This season the Cavs have trouble protecting the paint defensively and they have trouble getting into the paint offensively. Anderson Varejao is an excellent player but he is best suited to be a starting power forward and/or a backup center; he is a bit miscast as a starting center.

Another problem is that the Princeton Offense that Coach Byron Scott loves does not smoothly fit with the Cavs' current roster. The Princeton Offense works best when a team has excellent high post bigs who can screen, pass and make jump shots. Varejao is good in pure screen/roll situations as a screener but he does not have the ballhandling dexterity or shooting touch of someone like Vlade Divac, who thrived in this offense with the Sacramento Kings. The Cavs should run more pure screen/roll sets with Varejao and also use pick and pop sets with Antawn Jamison. In certain matchups they should feature Jamison in the post, because he can be very tough to cover down there. The Cavs do not have the option of going big, so they should revel in going small, playing fast, hustling and trying to get uncontested three pointers in transition for guys like Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker.

I knew about these problems and tendencies before the season began, so why did I predict that the Cavs would "hover right around .500 for most of the season and to manage to hold on to the final playoff spot"? I thought that the Cavs would probably start slowly--though not quite this slowly--but then round into form in the second half of the season. I also realized that other than the top four or five teams every team in the East has significant shortcomings/weaknesses. The main concern for the Cavs right now is not their record--in an Eastern Conference populated by broken Pistons, nearly extinct Raptors, Wizards lacking special powers, spiritless 76ers and empty Nets it will not take a great record to get the eighth playoff spot--but rather their attitudes. The Cavs are just not playing hard and they clearly do not have enough talent to just coast. The current losing streak will end soon--quite possibly against a team that no one expects them to beat--and I still do not think that it is out of the question for the Cavs to get to 35-37 wins, which could be enough to grab the eighth seed. However, if they don't get their minds right and/or if they suffer an injury to a key player then their season could spiral down the drain, though it would take a collapse of epic and historic proportions for them to end up with just 12 wins!

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM

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