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Friday, May 13, 2011

Chicago Versus Miami Preview

Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Chicago (62-20) vs. #2 Miami (58-24)

Season series: Chicago, 3-0

Miami can win if...the Heat force a lot of turnovers that they convert into transition points. The Heat are an aggressive defensive team--particularly on the perimeter--but they can be vulnerable inside against patient, physical teams that do not panic and do not turn the ball over. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are almost impossible to stop in the open court but elite defensive teams can at least slow them down in the half court by building a "wall" around the paint and forcing them to shoot jump shots.

Chicago will win because...the Bulls are a tough, physical, defensive-minded team that will seal off the paint and force James and Wade to make contested two point jump shots. The Bulls run excellent half court offensive sets and their big men can give the Heat some problems by attacking the paint for layups, dunks and offensive rebounds.

Other things to consider: When the Heat eliminated the Boston Celtics in five games they celebrated as if they had won the NBA title, prompting TNT's Charles Barkley to wonder aloud if the Heat realized that all they had done was win a second round series (contrast the Heat's reaction with how the Mavs responded to beating the Lakers and also keep in mind that the Celtics don't even raise banners for conference championships, a level of success that the Heat are still four wins away from attaining). If the Heat feel like beating the Celtics is equivalent to winning the NBA title and/or cleared the path to easily doing so then they are in for quite a shock; the Celtics are proud former champions but they are old and they lack the physical presence in the paint that they had before they traded Kendrick Perkins.

The Boston-Miami storyline captured the public's imagination but the Chicago-Miami storyline is at least as interesting in its own right; while many teams literally begged LeBron James to sign with them last summer, Derrick Rose reportedly told James that James could join the strong team that the Bulls were building or else the Bulls would defeat James if he went somewhere else. Rose is trying to lead his hometown team to an NBA title without the benefit of playing alongside a big name superstar but the Bulls are much more talented and deep than the national media is willing to admit (the national media have convinced themselves that only Kobe Bryant has a good supporting cast--though perhaps this year's playoffs have at least caused them to tentatively reconsider this idea--and that every other team is fatally flawed in some way); I would take Chicago's deep frontcourt as a collective unit over the Lakers' more touted frontcourt even though Pau Gasol is the most talented individual frontcourt player on either team.

LeBron James is a better all-around individual player than Derrick Rose but Rose has a finely tuned sense of exactly what his team needs for him to do; it sometimes seems like James is trying to prove a point or trying to accumulate particular numbers as opposed to simply making the right play, though he did perform brilliantly in the clutch (even if the "stat gurus" might not technically define what James did as "clutch") down the stretch of game five to eliminate the Celtics (which is exactly what I predicted James would do, though I thought that he would have to do it in game seven instead of game five). It would be deliciously ironic if Rose and his supposedly no-name supporting cast--a team very similar to the one that James left behind in Cleveland--beat the star-studded Miami Heat.

Have you noticed that almost nothing that has come out of James' mouth in the past year or so made any sense? From "taking my talents to South Beach" (is he going to Florida to party or to win a championship?), to calling a reporter's question "retarded" to belatedly apologizing for how he handled his "Decision" but then throwing his old teammates under the bus by saying that he "could not beat Boston by myself" (as if he were playing one on five or as if we are supposed to forget that he quit in game five versus Boston last season), James has repeatedly stuck his foot in his mouth. This does not invalidate his greatness as a player but it is just strange to watch/hear such nonsense after he spent the first part of his career seemingly hitting the right note every time he spoke publicly.

James appears to believe that star power alone wins in the NBA--he says that the success of the Celtics' star-studded team inspired him to join forces with Wade and Chris Bosh--but while star power is often important it is far from the only ingredient in a championship recipe; a championship team must be fully committed to defense and rebounding (contrast Chicago's multiple efforts in those categories with the lackadaisical performances offered in this year's postseason by nearly every Laker not named Kobe Bryant) and it must have players who can fill various roles in high pressure situations. James seems to think that he and Wade can take all of the shots, score all of the points and coast to a title. Their overpowering athleticism is indeed enough to win 50-plus games a season for the foreseeable future but only time will tell if it is also good enough to consistently beat elite teams in seven game playoff series.

Bosh is a versatile big man who can score in the post or hit the faceup jumper but James and Wade tend to take turns monopolizing the ball, relegating perennial All-Star Bosh into being little more than a Horace Grant-type power forward crashing the offensive boards from the weak side (Grant was a very good player but Bosh is a much more gifted and versatile scorer than Grant, even though the Heat only showcase Bosh's abilities on a sporadic basis). It is fascinating to observe the way that many members of the national media cover two similar stories in a vastly different way: whenever Pau Gasol's numbers go down, it is usually asserted that Kobe Bryant is selfishly shooting too much and not feeding Gasol the ball (Gasol played so meekly during this year's playoffs that the normally calm Coach Phil Jackson slapped Gasol in the chest to wake Gasol up, so even the biased media realized that Bryant could not be blamed this time for Gasol's declining numbers)--but, as I mentioned two months ago, Bosh and Coach Erik Spoelstra have been designated by the media as the scapegoats if the Heat do not win the NBA championship. Look at how many references there are to the Heat as "Two and a Half Men," as if Bosh somehow has been reduced not just from All-Star status but to something less than a full man. Bosh was a five-time All-Star and a 2007 All-NBA Second Team selection before he joined the Heat; he finished seventh in the 2007 MVP balloting. The assertion that he is not a legit, top 15 caliber player in the NBA is absurd but fits right in with the way that the media and "stat gurus" consistently denigrate the players surrounding James and Wade.

There has been a not so subtle shift in the media's narrative about the Heat; before this season began, we were told that James and Wade are arguably the two best players in the NBA and that they would prove to be an unstoppable duo that would lead the Heat to 70-plus wins and multiple championships. The Heat had a good but hardly dominant regular season, so now we are told that Bosh is some kind of liability and that the rest of the roster--which has been upgraded during the season with the addition of Mike Bibby, who had been the starting point guard for a playoff bound team in Atlanta--is useless. The excuses are already in place if the Heat lose and yet the groundwork has also been laid to coronate James and Wade if the Heat win the title (ESPN actually wasted part of a segment of a recent pregame show entertaining the notion that James and Wade may be a superior duo than Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a conversation that is at least six years premature). Let's be perfectly clear: James is the best player in the NBA, Wade is a top six player (Rose moved past him this season), the Heat have enough talent to win a championship and if the Heat win a title that does not instantly make James and Wade into superheroes.

After the Bulls beat the Heat will the media have to transform Rose into a superhero to explain how such an "upset" could happen?

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:47 PM

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Analysis of the All-NBA Team Voting

The NBA annually selects a 15 member All-NBA Team divided into three five man squads--and almost every year the selections don't quite add up, both literally (in terms of vote totals) and figuratively (I previously offered my take on discrepancies in the 2009 and 2007 editions of the All-NBA Team).

This year's First Team is not controversial (Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant), though for the second straight year the media chose Durant while I would have selected Dirk Nowitzki. The Second Team consists of Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Amare Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook, while LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Al Horford, Manu Ginobili and Chris Paul earned Third Team honors. In addition to the Nowitzki-Durant swap, my All-NBA Team included Aldridge on the Second Team and listed Gasol as the Third Team center; I chose Tony Parker instead of Ginobili as a Third Team guard and my Third Team forwards were Blake Griffin and Kevin Love.

Unless there is a typographical error on the official NBA press release, this year the 119 media members on the selection panel combined for 120 First Team votes at center, 237 First Team votes at forward and 240 First Team votes at guard. The only guards who received First Team votes were Rose, Bryant and Wade--none of whom should be listed at any other position (though Bryant occasionally plays small forward)--so it is difficult to understand why there were two "extra" guard votes (119 media members voting for two First Team guard slots should produce 238 First Team votes, not 240). The discrepancy at center and forward is easier to explain; Stoudemire clearly received one First Team vote as a center and one as a forward. However, there is no logical explanation for how 119 voters combined for 597 total First Team votes (the total should be 595).

A funny "old school" story about the blurred distinction between center and power forward happened back in the 1970s when the 6-7, wide bodied Wes Unseld was the Bullets' nominal center while the 6-9, agile Elvin Hayes (a collegiate center) was the Bullets' nominal power forward; Hayes told a reporter that the Bullets needed better play from the center position but when the reporter repeated that remark to Unseld he retorted that Hayes should know because Hayes is the team's center! However, the Bullets were somewhat unusual--most "old school" teams had a clearly defined center and a clearly defined power forward. A few years ago, Shaquille O'Neal called himself "LCL" (the "Last Center Left") and he was prophetic to some degree. Howard is one of the few legitimate back to the basket, traditional centers; most NBA big men are hybrids whose skill sets/body types represent a blurring of the line between center (historically the biggest player on the team and someone who operated predominantly in the paint) and power forward (historically the second biggest player on the team and someone who could rebound in the paint but also step out to shoot the 15 foot jump shot). Players like Gasol, Stoudemire and Tim Duncan often are the de facto centers for their respective teams yet they are more mobile than traditional centers and they face the basket on offense more frequently than most traditional centers used to do.

The strange thing about this year's All-NBA Team is that Horford received designation as the Third Team center even though he is essentially a power forward and even though the Hawks' best lineup this season (as seen during the playoffs) shifted him to power forward. Why honor Horford when Griffin and Love clearly had better seasons? Both Griffin (22.5 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 3.8 apg) and Love (20.2 ppg, a league-leading 15.2 rpg, 2.5 apg) put up significantly better numbers than Horford (15.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.5 apg) so it makes no sense to use a tenuous positional designation as an excuse to put Horford on the team. By placing Gasol at Third Team center I gave Aldridge his just due as a Second Team forward (Aldridge is clearly Portland's franchise player, while Gasol is clearly the Lakers' second option) while also creating room for Griffin and Love to be on the team. Although a good case can be made to put Randolph on the team, Griffin and Love were more productive than Randolph during the regular season--and, even though playoff performance has no bearing on a regular season honor, it should be noted that despite the attention Randolph has received for his postseason production he is shooting just .439 from the field so far in the playoffs, well below his .503 regular season field goal percentage. Randolph and Horford received 67 and 62 points respectively in the voting (scored on a 5-3-1 basis), while Love received 48 (fourth best among players who did not make the cut, trailing Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony) and Griffin received 36.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:31 PM

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bryant and Garnett Each Earn All-Defensive First Team Honors for the Ninth Time

Three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard earned unanimous selection to the 2011 All-Defensive Team, receiving 27 First Team votes and two Second Team votes in balloting conducted among the league's 30 head coaches (coaches are not permitted to vote for their own players). Howard has thus been recognized as the league's top defender by members of the media (who vote for the Defensive Player of the Year) and by the coaches.

After not making either squad last season, a revitalized Kevin Garnett received First Team honors for a record-tying ninth time; Kobe Bryant made the First Team for the ninth time overall and the sixth season in a row. Michael Jordan and Gary Payton are the only other nine-time members of the All-Defensive First Team. Tim Duncan holds the all-time mark with 13 total All-Defensive Team selections (including eight First Team nods), followed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (11), Bobby Jones (11, including two ABA selections), Kobe Bryant (10), Kevin Garnett (10) and Scottie Pippen (10). The NBA has selected All-Defensive Teams each season since 1969-70, while the ABA selected an All-Defensive Team (one five man unit only, not two five man units) from 1972-73 through 1975-76.

LeBron James and Rajon Rondo are the other First Team selections; James made the First Team for the third straight year, while this is Rondo's second consecutive First Team selection (Rondo made the Second Team in 2009).

Defense is half of the game and yet even many "stat gurus" acknowledge that "advanced basketball statistics" do not precisely measure individual defense. "Stat gurus," media members and fans each have certain biases and these various biases become quite pronounced regarding defense precisely because defense is so hard to quantify and because most observers do not have a sophisticated (or even basic) understanding of NBA defense on a team or individual level. Scientists have spent more than 50 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to repeatedly verify arguably the most successful theory of all time (Einstein's Theory of Relativity), so it is mystifying that "stat gurus" appear to be completely disinterested in experimentally verifying their "advanced basketball statistics"; even more troubling is that "stat gurus" largely disregard the reality that many of the basic box score numbers are subjective or even just wrong: I have repeatedly provided evidence that assist totals are inaccurate and I strongly suspect that there are similar problems with defensive numbers like steals and blocked shots (not to mention the fact that the league is not even attempting to quantify many of the most important important aspects of team defense, such as switching, hedging, double-teaming and so forth). The raw box score numbers are both flawed and incomplete, yet the "stat gurus" stubbornly insist that they alone possess the full truth about how to evaluate NBA players.

My All-Defensive Team choices are usually very similar to the official selections (the coaches agreed with eight of my 10 picks in each of the past three seasons: 2008, 2009 and 2010) while differing from the opinions expressed by "stat gurus," media members and other self-proclaimed experts. This season, six of my 10 All-Defensive Team choices matched the coaches' choices, including all five of my First Team picks plus the selection of Tyson Chandler as the Second Team center; the coaches rounded out their Second Team with Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala and Joakim Noah while I preferred Thabo Sefolosha, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Gerald Wallace. I rejected Allen because he barely averaged 20 mpg and I simply did not think that Paul was quite as effective defensively as he was in previous seasons. I mentioned Noah as a quite viable Second Team honoree and I feel the same way about Iguodala; they each totaled 15 points (players receive two points for each First Team vote and one point for each Second Team vote) and were thus the last players to make the cut, just ahead of Dwyane Wade (14 points), Russell Westbrook (13) and a quartet of players who received 11 points each: Wallace, Hill, Luol Deng (another player who I gave an honorable mention) and Duncan. Sefolosha, a member of the Second Team last season, received just five Second Team votes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 AM

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Monday, May 09, 2011

Lakers Face Crossroads After Being Swept by Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks swept the Lakers out of the second round of the playoffs with a 122-86 victory marked by great Dallas teamwork, a stunning lack of effort by nearly every Laker not named Kobe Bryant and two cheap shots by Laker players--the second of which ranks among the dirtiest plays seen in the NBA in quite some time. The stunning end to the Lakers' "three-peat" quest will no doubt inspire a lot of commentary devoid of logic and context; this article is a preemptive strike intended to provide some much needed perspective about the era that just ended and about what the future holds for the Lakers. I am not in any way slighting the Mavericks by focusing on the Lakers; the Mavericks have the opportunity to write their own championship ending in the next six weeks, so the story of their season (and the story of the Dirk Nowitzki era) cannot be completely told until after their playoff run is over.

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Evaluating the 2008-2010 Lakers

There will most likely be a lot of overheated rhetoric about how the Lakers' loss supposedly tarnishes Kobe Bryant's legacy (interestingly, that kind of argument has yet to be heard regarding Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the wake of the San Antonio Spurs' first round loss to the eighth seeded Memphis Grizzlies). The Lakers' "failure" this season has to be put in the larger context of what they accomplished from 2008-2010 and the nearly unprecedented nature of what they were trying to do this season; during that period of time the Western Conference has arguably been as strong as either conference has ever been but the Lakers finished with the best record three years in a row, backed up that regular season success by advancing to the NBA Finals each time and won two championships after losing in the 2008 Finals to the Boston Celtics. The 2008 Celtics were anchored by three future Hall of Famers and were one of the greatest defensive teams ever. The Lakers avenged the 2008 loss by defeating the Celtics in an epic seven game NBA Finals in 2010.

The 2011 Lakers were trying to advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season, a feat that has only been accomplished by three teams: the 1984-87 Celtics, the 1982-85 Lakers and the 1959-66 Celtics. If the Lakers had won the 2011 championship then they would have been the only team other than Bill Russell's Celtics to advance to at least four straight Finals and win at least three championships (the Jordan-Pippen Bulls "three-peated" twice, the O'Neal-Bryant Lakers "three-peated" once and the Mikan Lakers "three-peated" once but none of those teams also made it to four straight Finals).

Think for just a moment about the facts in the preceding paragraph: the Lakers were trying to do something that has only been achieved by the greatest dynasties in the history of the sport! Then think about this for a moment: Russell's Celtics were loaded with other Hall of Famers (including Top 50 players Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bill Sharman), the 1980's Celtics had three Top 50 players (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish) plus another Hall of Famer (Dennis Johnson) and the 1980's Lakers had three Top 50 players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy). Each of those dynasties brought current or former All-Stars off of the bench during at least some of those seasons.

Some people try to fool the public by saying that the current Lakers team is talented and/or deep but in 2009 I wrote a detailed refutation of both notions (the 2010 Lakers added some talent by essentially swapping Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest but that did not materially change the truth of what I asserted in 2009); the 2009 and 2010 Lakers were among the least talented and least deep champions of the past two decades and they were not even close to being as talented or deep as the Russell Celtics, Bird Celtics or Johnson Lakers: while the latter three teams had multiple Hall of Famers/Top 50 players, the current Lakers have one player of that caliber (Kobe Bryant), one All-Star who had not won a single playoff game prior to joining the Lakers (Pau Gasol), a solid sixth man who often had to start (Lamar Odom), a talented but raw young center with chronically bad knees (Andrew Bynum) and a collection of role players (Artest made his only All-Star appearance seven years and three teams ago and thus can hardly be compared to the perennial All-Stars who played alongside Russell, Bird and Johnson).

Much has been made of the Lakers' vaunted size but the reality is that Gasol, Bynum and Odom were hardly ever on the court together at the same time and Bynum was a hobbled 20 mpg role player during the playoffs in the Lakers' two championship seasons. Gasol, Bynum and Odom comprised a nice three man rotation of bigs but what really made them deadly was the fact that opposing teams had to send multiple defenders at Bryant, enabling those bigs to play one on one in the post and/or have free lanes to crash the offensive boards.

In order to really understand the evolution of the Lakers' roster and what made the Lakers tick from 2008-10 it is useful to think back to the 2006 and 2007 seasons; Kobe Bryant set various scoring records while twice carrying the Lakers to the playoffs with Kwame Brown as the starting center, Smush Parker as the starting point guard and Luke Walton as the starting small forward. Brown never started a playoff game before or since that time, Parker has been out of the league for several years and Walton has become a seldom-used reserve. Bryant arguably did more with less in those seasons than just about any other superstar in NBA history and it was clearly evident that if the Lakers could surround him with even a semi-adequate supporting cast then they would once again be championship contenders.

During those years, no one thought of Gasol as an elite player; Gasol made the All-Star team in 2006--his only All-Star selection in the first seven years of his career--but after his Memphis teams were repeatedly swept in the first round of the playoffs Memphis' management realized that it would not be possible to build a legit contender around Gasol so they decided to trade him and rebuild. Meanwhile, the 2008 Lakers reacquired Derek Fisher to take Parker's spot, inserted Bynum into the starting lineup and started out 25-11. When Bynum got hurt the Lakers realized that if they could replace him with a big man who could walk and chew gum at the same time (i.e., not Brown) they could make some noise in the playoffs; their short term need provided a perfect match with Memphis' long term need, so the Lakers sent Kwame Brown, Marc Gasol and other considerations to the Grizzlies in exchange for Pau Gasol. Many people reacted as if the Lakers had pulled off the heist of the century but, as I wrote right after the Lakers-Grizzlies trade, "All that can be said at the moment is that this is the right kind of move for Memphis to make, because there was no future for the team the way it was composed prior to this deal. In an odd way, there is a slight similarity between what Memphis is doing now and what the Lakers did with Shaq several years ago; the Grizzlies are getting rid of their best player and taking a short term step backwards with the hope of being better off long term, while the Lakers are shedding some youth in order to make a championship run now. Two obvious differences are that Gasol is not nearly as good now as Shaq was in 2004 and the talent that the Lakers acquired as a result of the Shaq trade (which, after several deals, has crystallized, essentially, as Bynum, Odom and Gasol) should give the Lakers a multiple year window in which to try to win titles, while the Heat narrowly escaped with one championship before the bottom fell out." My assessment proved to be quite prophetic as the Lakers enjoyed a nice three year run with Pau Gasol while the Grizzlies rebuilt their squad and may actually advance farther in the playoffs this season than the Lakers did.

Pau Gasol has never been a dominant player or an especially tough player but he is intelligent and he has a multi-faceted skill set; a screen-roll play featuring him and Bryant can be lethal because the opposing team must trap Bryant, thus enabling Gasol to roll to the hoop, spot up or catch a pass from Bryant and quickly swing the ball to a wide open player on the weak side. The Lakers did not need for Gasol to carry a huge load as a franchise player but merely to be a legit second option, thus relegating Odom to his proper role as the third option. Although some teams struggle after making significant moves, the 2008 Lakers bonded quickly as Bryant and Gasol instantly formed a very good on-court chemistry. The Lakers rolled all the way to the NBA Finals, where a bigger, tougher, more talented and deeper Celtics team took them out in six games.

Statistically, Gasol was essentially the same player in L.A. that he had been in Memphis except for two differences: his field goal percentage and his offensive rebounding both increased in L.A., a direct result of the openings created for him when opposing teams trapped Bryant.

With Gasol on board Bryant no longer had to score at a record setting pace during the regular season but in order to advance in the playoffs the Lakers needed for Bryant to play at roughly the level that Michael Jordan performed at during the Bulls' second "three-peat"; I provided an indepth analysis of this subject in my June 24, 2010 article titled Placing Kobe Bryant's Career in Historical Context but the shorthand confirmation of that assessment is a simple comparison of Jordan's playoff numbers from 1996-98 with Bryant's playoff numbers from 2008-10:

Here are Jordan's playoff averages from 1996-98 when the Bulls won three championships:

1996: 30.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, .459 FG%, .403 3FG%, .818 FT%
1997: 31.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, .456 FG%, .194 3FG%, .831 FT%
1998: 32.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, .462 FG%, .302 3FG%, .812 FT%

Here are Bryant's playoff averages from 2008-10 when the Lakers made three straight trips to the Finals and won two championships:

2008: 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%
2009: 30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 3FG%, .883 FT%
2010: 29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%

Here are some other important stats/facts about Bryant's 2008-10 playoff productivity:

1) Bryant averaged at least 40.1 mpg in each of those postseasons.
2) Bryant scored at least 30 points in 12 of the Lakers' 21 playoff games in 2008, 15 of their 23 playoff games in 2009 and 14 of their 23 playoff games in 2010.
3) Bryant set an NBA record by scoring at least 30 points in eight straight potential road closeout games (the previous record of six was held by Elgin Baylor).
4) In addition to carrying the aforementioned scoring load despite facing constant double and triple teams, Bryant also led the Lakers in assists and played a major role defensively, alternating between being a lockdown one on one defender in some matchups and being a roaming help defender in other matchups (Boston Coach Doc Rivers asserted that Bryant is the best help defender since Scottie Pippen).
5) Bryant accomplished these feats despite multiple finger injuries (including an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand) and a 2010 right knee injury that ultimately required surgical correction after the playoffs.

Two things should be quite obvious:

1) Kobe Bryant carried a huge load during the 2008-10 playoffs.
2) Kobe Bryant's 2008-10 accomplishments plus his contributions to the 2000-02 championship teams, his 2008 regular season MVP, his two scoring titles and his numerous All-NBA and All-Defensive Team selections mean that his legacy is very secure regardless of what happens during the rest of his career; he can add to his legacy by winning more championships but his legacy will not be diminished if he fails to win another title.

When thinking about Bryant's legacy it is useful to consider that LeBron James is 26, has logged over 25,000 regular season minutes and has yet to win an NBA championship. Even if James' Heat win the 2011 championship they will have to capture four more titles in a row--something that has only been accomplished by Russell's Celtics--just for James to tie Bryant with five rings; otherwise, James will have to win some rings well past the age of 30 in order to match Bryant's total, a task that may not be so easy for a player who is very dependent on size, speed and strength but whose midrange game and footwork are not nearly as good as Bryant's. Bryant won two championships and made three straight Finals appearances with Pau Gasol, who was a one-time All-Star prior to joining the Lakers; James not only has his own Gasol (Chris Bosh) but he also is playing alongside Dwyane Wade, a perennial member of the All-NBA Team.

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The 2011 Lakers: Lack of Focus and Toughness Culminates in Missed Assignments, Flagrant Fouls and an Embarrassing Sweep

Bryant ranks 27th on the all-time regular season minutes played list (40,145). What does that mean? Here is what some other NBA legends were doing by the time they had logged that many career minutes: Michael Jordan was a 39 year old Wizard averaging 20 ppg in his final season, Julius Erving was a 34 year old All-Star averaging 20 ppg, Hakeem Olajuwon was an injury-prone role player averaging 10.3 ppg and Oscar Robertson was averaging 15.5 ppg in the second to last season of his career. Ageless wonder Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still an All-NBA level performer well past the 40,000 minute mark but that just shows how remarkable (and underrated) he is; Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor and Magic Johnson each retired thousands of minutes shy of the 40,000 barrier.

Bryant also ranks second on the all-time playoff minutes played list (8165), trailing only Abdul-Jabbar (8851). It is remarkable--and nearly unprecedented--for any player, let alone a perimeter player, to still be an All-NBA First Team caliber performer after accumulating as much mileage as Bryant has. Bryant has transformed himself from a high flyer with a jump shot to a jump shooter who can still occasionally fly. Prior to the 2011 season, Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson agreed upon a minutes restriction plan to preserve Bryant's health and hopefully enable Bryant to peak at playoff time; Bryant had averaged between 36.1 and 41.5 mpg from 1999-2010 but in 2011 Bryant averaged just 33.9 mpg, nearly five mpg less than he averaged in 2010. Since Bryant played in all 82 games that amounted to saving more than 400 minutes of wear and tear--but it also meant sacrificing some regular season wins; Bryant used to say that he never worried about the Lakers' reserves playing poorly because if the situation got out of hand then he would just check himself back into the game but that was not the case in 2011: when the Lakers' reserves blew leads or allowed deficits to grow in the fourth quarter Bryant stayed on the bench. Bryant also rarely practiced with the team, another concession to age that had a domino effect on the team; Bryant is a notoriously intense practice player but it became evident that without him setting the tone the Lakers' practices lacked a certain edge and that soon spilled over into how they played during games.

Jackson and Bryant hoped/believed that during the playoffs they would be able to unleash a rested, healthy Bryant but that did not really turn out to be the case; Bryant severely sprained his left ankle in March and then he reaggravated that injury in game four of the Lakers' first round series versus New Orleans. Bryant averaged at least 10 FTA/g during each of his three peak seasons and he settled in at around 7 FTA/g from 2009-2011 but he averaged fewer than 5 FTA/g in the Lakers' final six playoff games this season after attempting at least seven free throws in each of the first four games. Bryant averaged at least 5.2 rpg in each of the past five postseasons but in 2011 he averaged just 3.4 rpg, including games with 2, 1 and 0 rebounds after reinjuring his ankle. I don't know how seriously Bryant's ankle is injured--Bryant only talks about injuries when he is directly asked about them and he refused to have an MRI done on his ankle during the playoffs--but it is obvious from both a visual and statistical standpoint that he was not the same player after game four versus New Orleans; during the 2008-10 Finals runs Bryant played like Jordan circa 1996-98 but in the 2011 playoffs Bryant was "merely" an All-Star caliber player (22.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.3 apg). Ironically, the reduction of Bryant from Superman to just a very good player proved the validity of everything that I have been saying about Bryant's importance to the Lakers and the Lakers' lack of talent/depth; during previous playoff runs when the Lakers got into trouble Bryant uncorked a 35-40 point game and/or locked down any perimeter player who was hurting the Lakers. Bryant nullified traps by either scoring over them or picking them apart with pinpoint passes. Bryant still attracted double teams during the 2011 playoffs but he could not power through them, he could not stay on the court for 40-plus minutes to buttress the team's weak bench (he played more than 40 minutes just once in 10 postseason games after doing so 15 times in 23 postseason games in 2010) and he could not consistently produce the scoring barrages that simultaneously boosted his team's confidence while demoralizing the opposing team.

Logically, the slack should have been picked up by the highly touted frontcourt of Gasol, Bynum and Odom but that did not happen. Bynum had some good moments but he completely disappeared in game one and game four versus Dallas. Odom was very inconsistent and shot poorly from the field (.459) and from three point range (.200). However, the biggest disappointment by far was Gasol, who some people were foolishly touting as a league MVP candidate just a few months ago; instead of stepping up to become a legit number one option, Gasol completely melted down, shooting just .420 from the field, becoming invisible defensively and committing numerous gaffes at both ends of the court. In 10 playoff games Gasol never exceeded 17 points and he only reached double figures in rebounds three times; Lakers' fans are now painfully aware of exactly why the Memphis Grizzlies decided that it is not possible to build a championship team around Gasol.

Everything came to a head in game four versus Dallas. Bryant scored 13 points on 6-8 field goal shooting in the first quarter, repeatedly nailing midrange jumpers, but the other Lakers combined to shoot 2-11 from the field. I don't know if anyone said "1,2,3, Cancun" on the Lakers' sideline but--other than Bryant--the Lakers' body language and production spoke very loudly and very clearly about their mindset. Despite Bryant's efficient scoring outburst the Lakers trailed 27-23 after the first 12 minutes and you could already see the writing on the wall: as soon as Bryant cooled off (or took a rest) the game would clearly get out of hand.

In the always entertaining--but rarely informative--post-first quarter interview, ABC's Heather Cox asked Coach Phil Jackson "What did you tell him (Kobe Bryant) you need from him today?" Jackson answered, "I don't have to tell him anything. He knows what he has to do." Then she asked Jackson what Jackson had just said to Lamar Odom on the sideline and Jackson replied, "Lamar's getting confused with their matchup zone. He just has to move the ball. He's trying to dribble with it at the top of the floor."

Odom and the rest of the Lakers remained confused on offense but their defensive effort and execution were even worse as the Mavericks outscored the Lakers 36-16 in the second quarter to effectively end the game by halftime. The Mavericks aggressively trapped Bryant and dared any other Laker to shoot. The notion that Bryant took the Lakers out of rhythm by shooting too much is absurd; no Laker other than Bryant displayed the willingness or ability to generate any kind of offense. Bryant did not have the necessary burst to explode past the double team to score but he made the correct passes that led to wide open shots for Gasol and other Lakers; Gasol and company either misfired or hesitated to shoot for so long that the Mavericks could easily recover. After his hot start, Bryant shot 1-10 from the field in the final three quarters but still finished as the Lakers' high scorer with 17 points.

The only thing uglier than the final score was the way that Odom and Bynum completely lost their composure in the fourth quarter; Odom received a flagrant two foul (and an automatic ejection) for hitting Dirk Nowitzki with a cheap shot elbow to the midsection and then Bynum got a flagrant two foul for smashing his forearm into an airborne J.J. Barea's ribcage, a reckless act that could have seriously injured Barea. TNT's Chris Webber made two excellent points about the cheap shots delivered by Odom and Bynum: (1) It is easy to seem tough/act tough (in previous seasons) when Kobe Bryant is bailing you out by making big plays and hitting tough shots; (2) if the NBA does not respond forcefully to Bynum's foul--a particularly vicious and dangerous blow--then the league runs the risk that game four of any series in which a team is losing 3-0 could devolve into a procession of head-hunting by the team that is about to get swept.

This is not the first time that Bynum has committed such a foul, either; in January 2009 Bynum delivered a cheap shot that fractured one of Gerald Wallace's ribs and collapsed Wallace's left lung and in March 2011 Bynum cracked Michael Beasley in the midsection. Bynum was ejected from the game and then suspended for two additional games after the foul against Beasley; the NBA indicated that it considered suspending Bynum for three games, so since Bynum is a multiple offender--and since the foul against Barea was the worst of Bynum's three cheap shots--the NBA should suspend Bynum for at least five games at the start of next season.

Phil Jackson clearly reached his wit's end with this team; Jackson has long been a vocal exponent of positive coaching--the very antithesis of someone like Bobby Knight, who used to rant and rave on the sidelines--but the softness and lack of focus exhibited by Gasol incited Jackson to literally strike out at Gasol twice during timeouts in game three of the Dallas series. Jackson--like John Wooden and most other members of the coaching pantheon--knows that most of a coach's job is done during practice and that is why Jackson's default demeanor on the sidelines usually was very calm no matter what was happening on the court; if a coach prepares his team properly then there is no reason for him to get overly excited during the game. Jackson's reaction to Gasol in the Dallas series is a powerful indictment of just how poorly Gasol played.

After the game, Jackson and Bryant shook hands with Dallas owner Mark Cuban, Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle and several Dallas players; Jackson's teams have always lost with dignity--I am thinking in particular of the 1994 Bulls who stayed on court to congratulate the Knicks after a very hard fought series--so it must have been very disturbing to Jackson that Bynum and Odom acted so disgracefully in Jackson's final game as a coach.

**********

The Future of the Lakers

If you understand how the Lakers achieved the success that they did from 2008-2010 and you understand what went wrong in 2011 then you can only draw one conclusion: the Lakers as presently constituted are not likely to qualify for the playoffs in 2011-12. If you think that statement sounds crazy then consider the reality that since 2008 the eighth seeded team in the West has won 50, 48, 50 and 46 games; four of the Lakers' five starters started all 82 games in 2010-11, with Odom filling in for Bynum when Bynum was hurt, and the Lakers ended up with 57 wins. If the Lakers keep the current roster intact it is highly likely that they will not enjoy similar health at the top of their rotation and it is also highly likely that Bryant's minutes will have to be further reduced as a concession to all of the mileage that he has accumulated; every minute that Bryant is not on the court is a minute that must be filled by one of the Lakers' ineffective bench players.

The Lakers clearly cannot expect Gasol to eventually become the team's number one option nor is it a good idea to hand that role to Bynum, a player who has yet to make it through an entire season while playing starter's minutes. Artest provides almost nothing on offense and his focus on defense wavers at times; without Jackson on the bench Artest may revert back to being completely uncoachable.

Derek Fisher has been a consummate professional throughout his long NBA career and at one time he was both a tenacious defender and a dangerous clutch shooter. Now, though, he is quite simply the worst starting point guard on any of the 16 playoff teams--and he would not even receive any minutes at all if he were on the Dallas roster competing for playing time against Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea. The Lakers brought in Steve Blake to serve as Fisher's backup and to be the primary defender against quick point guards but Blake had a very disappointing season, as did free agent acquisition Matt Barnes; the Mavericks' reserves obliterated the Lakers' bench, a group that consists of Odom (who starts nearly half the time due to Bynum's chronic injury problems), Shannon Brown (who rarely saw any action when he was a member of a legitimately deep team, the 2007 and 2008 Cavs), Blake, Barnes and a bunch of players (including former starter Walton) who collected cobwebs sitting uselessly next to Jackson.

Magic Johnson has received some heat for publicly saying prior to game three of the Dallas series that the Lakers must blow up the roster and that no one should be safe except for Bryant. The Lakers must get younger, deeper and more athletic. Historically, the Lakers have always responded in times of crisis by acquiring the best available big man: they nabbed Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 and Pau Gasol (who really should not be mentioned with those other guys but was a serviceable second option for three-plus years) in 2008. The obvious, logical solution for the Lakers is to find a way to acquire Dwight Howard but that may turn out to be easier said than done; the Lakers are way over the salary cap and it is not clear what the new CBA will look like. If Howard decides to stay in Orlando or if the Lakers are not able to trade for Howard due to changes in the CBA then their fans may be in for a season that will make the game four meltdown against Dallas feel like a picnic: optimistically pencil Bryant in for 22-23 ppg in 30 mpg next season, factor in the team's obvious lack of chemistry, consider the number of rising teams in the West, do the math and without an infusion of talent on the roster it adds up to less than 50 wins--which does not equal a playoff berth in the West; the Kobe Bryant who worked miracles in 2006-07 and who carried a good team to great heights in 2008-10 will only be appearing at the Staples Center in highlights played on the video screen above the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:09 AM

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