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Saturday, July 07, 2012

Team USA's 12 Man Roster is Officially Announced

Injuries and the aging process prevented USA Basketball from completely putting the 2008 band back together but the 2012 version of Team USA that will compete in the London Olympics includes a strong mixture of five Olympic veterans and five FIBA World Championship veterans plus two young talents who will provide athleticism and scoring punch. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams played on the 2008 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic team, while Kevin Durant, Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Love won gold medals for Team USA during the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Blake Griffin and James Harden are the newcomers who will provide firepower off of the bench.

James and Anthony will join David Robinson (1988, 1992, 1996) as the only men to play three times for Team USA in the Olympics. Bryant, Paul and Williams will add their names to the somewhat longer but still quite distinguished list of two-time U.S. Olympic basketball players: Charles Barkley (1992, 1996), Carlos Boozer (2004, 2008), Patrick Ewing (1984, 1992), Burdette Haldorson (1956, 1960), William Hougland (1952, 1956), Michael Jordan (1984, 1992), Jason Kidd (2000, 2008) Robert Kurland (1948, 1952), Karl Malone (1992, 1996), Chris Mullin (1984, 1992), Gary Payton (1996, 2000), Scottie Pippen (1992, 1996), Mitch Richmond (1988, 1996) and John Stockton (1992, 1996).

The 39 year old Kidd, who owns a 46-0 record as a member of two Olympic gold medalists and three FIBA Americas Championship squads (1999, 2003, 2007), previously announced his retirement from international play (and likely would not have been selected for this year's roster in any case); injuries prevented 2008 Olympians Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and 2010 FIBA World Championship veteran Derrick Rose from participating this time.

It will be very interesting to see how Coach Mike Krzyzewski distributes starting honors and--more importantly--minutes. Durant, the three-time reigning NBA scoring champion and 2010 FIBA World Championship MVP, may not even start for this team; James, Bryant and Paul are almost certainly locks to start, Chandler is the only true center on the roster and Anthony--despite his poor shooting and inconsistent play--started all eight games for the 2008 squad (though he often ended up on the bench during crunch time). Chandler played so poorly in the 2010 FIBA World Championship that he not only failed to hold on to the starting center job but he eventually fell out of the rotation completely, averaging just 8.6 mpg during the event, so perhaps that will influence Coach Krzyzewski to go "small" from the outset with James at center, Anthony at power forward, Durant at small forward and Bryant and Paul in the backcourt. It is certainly possible that Coach Krzyzewski will experiment a bit with his starting lineup and his overall rotation during Team USA's exhibition games/pre-Olympic tour. Love indicated that Coach Krzyzewski plans to use him almost exclusively at center.

FIBA basketball has different rules, a different playing/officiating style and a different rhythm from NBA basketball, so some players who look great in NBA play may be plagued by foul trouble and/or just generally seem out of sorts during FIBA competition. Love has emerged as a great NBA player but he was a non-factor--other than in garbage time--during the 2010 FIBA World Championship and Griffin is a good candidate to lead this squad in fouls per minute due to his aggressive style combined with FIBA's eccentric officiating. Harden seemed to lose his game and his confidence during the 2012 NBA Finals, so it will be interesting to see if the changes of venue and rules bring him back to life or if he stays in his slump.

Team USA will obviously rely on quickness and athleticism and if Team USA has the proper "attention to detail" (as Bryant put it shortly after the announcement of the final roster) then they should be able to overwhelm most of the teams that they will face; Team USA's main weakness--a lack of size, specifically a dearth of true back to the basket centers--could be exploited by teams that do not turn the ball over, keep the pace of the game slow and pound the ball inside to skilled big men.

Despite what countless "experts" will proclaim, the deciding factor for Team USA will not be lack of size or how well Team USA shoots from behind the arc; Team USA has several players who play and rebound "bigger" than their size and Team USA should be able to score so well in transition that three point shooting will not be a huge part of their offensive repertoire. The key for Team USA to win in FIBA events is to play suffocating defense and shut down the opposing team's three point shooters without getting broken down for layups in the screen/roll game. In the 2008 Olympics, Team USA held opposing teams to .403 field goal shooting and .299 three point field goal shooting. Those are the two most important statistical categories to monitor as Team USA chases gold in London.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:26 PM

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Friday, July 06, 2012

Ralph Wiley Understood Kobe Bryant's Genius

"Would you please be reasonable?"--Vinny Terranova

"I don't have to be reasonable. I'm a genius."--Johnny Medley

(Dialogue from Wiseguy episode "Dead Dog Lives")

**********

Ralph Wiley passed away eight years ago, so NBA fans who are high school age or younger may not even realize that ESPN.com once employed someone who wrote not just with style, verve and humor but also intelligence. Wiley's perspective on Kobe Bryant's February 2003 40.6 ppg scoring spree (the first of four calendar months in Bryant's career during which Bryant averaged at least 40 ppg, second all-time to Wilt Chamberlain's record of 11 such months) was nuanced, brilliant and prescient: you could say that it takes a genius to fully appreciate a genius--and Wiley understood Bryant's genius while lesser mortals took potshots at Bryant. Here is a taste of Wiley's analysis:

Observing Kobe's most recent scoring jag--44.6 per in the last five, nine straight with 35 points or more, best scoring run-out the NBA has seen since the mid-'80s, when Mike Jordan was 24 and 25, the same age Kobe is now--we may conclude Kobe is the greatest scoring force in the league.

Ever.

Sit down. Go with me for a minute. Understand that, just for today, we're leaving Dog and all the other Kobe-haters and Kobe-stoppers and Kobe-controllers home on this op.

We are talking raw ball here, not from the exalted seat of a fan or the controlling seat of a coach, but first from over Kobe's shoulder as he posts us up--from playing off him as he's facing us, reading his body lean; then with him--keeping the spacing correct, salivating as our man slides his way and we come open for the 18-footer that can win a game; and finally, from inside his head--God, it's cluttered in here!

Bryant's prodigious scoring did not inspire universal praise and admiration in 2003 any more than it does today but Wiley stood out from the pack because--instead of joining the critics who blasted Bryant for supposedly shooting too much--he took aim at his fellow scribes for shooting off their mouths. Wiley realized that Bryant felt that his genius should grant him certain liberties and Wiley realized that Bryant had the prerogative to think that way:

I try not to fear, hate or resent him. Or lecture him, or control him, tell him how he failed at some level of hoop.

Besides, even if I'd been in a mood to try it, I didn't think I could back it up. Maybe Jerry West could talk to him like that. Maybe Broke Daddy, Ol' Jingle-Jangle-Jingle, Phil Jackson, one of my favored old Knicks, could do it, maybe. Jordan, sure. Someone should ask Jordan. Do you have any real big problem with the application of Kobe's game? What do you think Jordan would say? "Yeah, I do. He's not running the offense right, or dreaming about it enough."

Right. Last I looked, at 24, Kobe the Destroyer had won three NBA rings in a row, and now is currently looking for a fourth in a row. So me chastizing him, at my advanced age, despite my long history of watching and being on the beats and studying the NBA, from the Rick Barry, Gus Williams, Silk Wilkes, Phil Smith NBA champion Warriors of 1975 and 1976, on through Bird, Magic, Isiah, Dumars, Akeem, MJ, and on until today...well, no. But, still, Kobe does not know that, and it would only mildly amuse him if he did.

So me telling him what he was not doing in the process of his three-ring accomplishments would be like Ron Turcotte pulling out a knotted whip and beating Secretariat with it as Big Red was in the process of winning the Belmont Stakes by 28 lengths. It would be not only grandstanding, it could even be seen as cruel. So I said what I said to him--"Kid, you really put on a show"--and then, later on, I thought about what I'd said, a few days after last Thanksgiving, as the Lakes were trying to get by without Shaquille O'Neal.

Kobe had nodded, not as if he understood me so much as he appreciated me not using the whip on him. And while it is true that a thoroughbred responds to the whip and a mule bucks and sucks, the thoroughbred can also become sick of the whip if misapplied too often, and with too much relish.

Wiley added that he thought Bryant could average 40 ppg for an entire season, something that has only been accomplished by Wilt Chamberlain. At that time--the middle of Bryant's seventh NBA season--Bryant's best single season scoring average was 28.5 ppg; although Bryant did not quite fulfill Wiley's prophecy, he averaged a then-career high 30.0 ppg in 2002-03 and in 2005-06 he averaged 35.4 ppg, a figure not surpassed since Michael Jordan scored 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and the ninth best single season scoring average in ABA/NBA history--trailing five Chamberlain masterpieces and one season each by Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry and Michael Jordan.

Instead of Wiley's eloquence, ESPN viewers and ESPN.com readers now have to settle for foolish ramblings about Bryant's allegedly deficient shot selection. That 2003 article was not the first time that Wiley shared his thoughts about Bryant. Here are two other Wiley gems on that subject:

MJ vs. Kobe @ 22:

Wiley constructed this piece as a dialogue between himself (R-Dub) and his alter ago (Road Dog). R-Dub took Bryant's side, while Road Dog supported young Jordan. R-Dub concluded:

The question is, would Jordan have been able to defer to Shaq, even in the slightest, as Kobe has done? Can you say for sure, Dog, any of you, that it's certain Shaq and Mike would've gotten along? Can you say, that if you were Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, if you had that kind of ability, the ability Kobe Bryant has, Jordanesque ability, that you would not want to be the go-to man, that you would not want it to be your club, featuring your talents?

The Seven Voyages of Kobe:

In this 2002 article, Wiley offered an interesting take on the ups and downs that Bryant might face during the rest of his career, concluding that Bryant is destined to be recognized as an all-time great:

Kobe Bryant, just off me talking with him briefly, seeing how he handled himself then, carries himself in general, watching him go through two of seven voyages already, sensing him sublimating his skills for the benefit of a team concept, hearing him accepting advice, yet living his own way, finally watching him become the most unstoppable baller on the planet, he doesn't strike me as your average man. He is extraordinary upstairs, too, I mean. Mentally unique. Perfectly suited to a new millennium. New Man.

By the year 2013, when he is 35, and has made unflinching, unregenerate, unapologetic and dedicated followers out of people who haven't yet been born, the people who will be driving the culture by then, Kobe will be of the Illuminati.

"That guy?" Better to say "Got-To Guy." Better to hope he's "good guy." Good in the real, not the PR sense.

As Kobe goes, so goes the arc of legend. They might have gotten lucky, the 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds, the ones who haven't been born. Even luckier than we got with Jordan.

Never known the game to go backward. Never.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:09 PM

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Can the Lakers' Methuselah Backcourt Lead a Championship Run?

The proposed transaction sending Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns to the L.A. Lakers in exchange for draft picks, the Lamar Odom trade exception and cash has already attracted much media attention even though it will not become official until July 11. Making predictions is a hazardous business but, assuming Nash becomes a Laker next season, it is reasonable to assume three things:

1) Kobe Bryant will not lead the Lakers in assists.
2) Kobe Bryant's field goal percentage will improve.
3) The Lakers will score more points and shoot a better field goal percentage.

Astute readers will notice that the word "championship" did not appear anywhere in that list; even with Nash in the fold, the Lakers still need to get younger and faster in order to seriously contend for the NBA championship: a Methuselah backcourt--one half of which is severely challenged defensively--combined with two good big men, no speed on the wings and no bench is not a championship-winning formula unless Bryant turns back time and is able to dominate for an entire season (in order to earn a top seed) and a whole playoff run.

For most of his career, Bryant has filled both the Michael Jordan and the Scottie Pippen roles in the Triangle Offense, serving as the top scoring option and the primary facilitator (that does not mean that he is better than Jordan and Pippen put together, but merely that Bryant has been asked to fill roles that normally are handled by two different players). Bryant performed well at both tasks but now that he has logged more games and more minutes than Jordan did in his entire career some wear and tear has shown around the edges; Bryant is still an elite player but he is no longer the best player in the league and it is not only logical but essential for the Lakers to ease some of his burden in order to extend his career as long as possible and maximize the number of championships that they can potentially win with him functioning as the team's best player. During the 2011-12 season, most of Bryant's per minute numbers were at or near his career norms but he had his lowest field goal percentage since his first two seasons in the league.

Nash's arrival helps Bryant in two ways. Nash will assume most of the ballhandling and ball distribution duties, freeing Bryant from those responsibilities; that will enable Bryant to get down court earlier and thus have more time to establish good position in the post or mid post area, where Nash will be able to get Bryant the ball for higher percentage shots than the shots Bryant attempted last season. No longer will Bryant be left with so many hand grenades--shots that he has to fire up because the shot clock is about to "explode" like a hand grenade after the pin has been pulled. Even though the Lakers no longer run the Triangle, they can still borrow some of the concepts that the Chicago Bulls used toward the end of Jordan's career when Pippen brought the ball up the court while Jordan got easy points by establishing position before the defense was fully set. Nash will also help the Lakers overall because he can run screen/roll actions with Bryant, Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol (if one or both of those big men are traded for Dwight Howard then of course Nash could run screen/roll actions with Howard to even more devastating effect), actions that will either free up those players for easy shots or else open up shots for role players on the weak side as the defense scrambles to stop the primary options.

Nash is also a tremendous shooter, one of the best pure shooters in the history of the league. For more than a decade, the Lakers have survived--and mostly thrived--while employing journeymen (Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Chucky Atkins, Ramon Sessions) or worse (Smush Parker) at point guard, so even a 38 year old Nash is a tremendous upgrade offensively but Nash has always been a below average defender; at the end of tight playoff games, Bryant (or someone else) will still have to guard the elite point guards but Coach Mike Brown built some great defenses in Cleveland with some subpar point guard defenders so he is more than up to the task of both putting Nash in the best possible position and also figuring out how to use various schemes to hide/protect Nash at times. Nash's minutes will have to be monitored so that his cranky back does not have a tantrum.

This proposed deal obviously improves the Lakers; the Lakers essentially are swapping the ghost of Lamar Odom plus some draft picks that--at best--would not have had any impact until after Bryant's career is over in exchange for a future Hall of Famer. However, if the Lakers do not either acquire Dwight Howard or significantly improve their overall speed and their woeful depth then they still will not be able to beat Oklahoma City or San Antonio in a seven game series. The Lakers are in a precarious position right now, neither building for the post-Bryant future nor really capable of winning a championship as currently constructed but all of that would be fixed by bringing Howard into the fold; Howard could cover up Nash's defensive flaws, control the paint at both ends of the court and ensure that the Lakers would have an excellent foundation after Bryant retires. If Howard's top priority is winning a championship then he should use whatever real or imagined leverage he possesses in order to make sure that he becomes a Laker.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM

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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Howard-Bynum Trade Would be Good for All Concerned Parties

In his most recent column, Kevin Ding makes a point that I have been emphasizing for more than a year: the most likely way for the L.A. Lakers to vault back into legitimate championship contention is to trade Andrew Bynum for Dwight Howard. Ding also notes that such a deal would be good for all concerned parties--not just Howard and Bynum individually but also both the Lakers and the Orlando Magic.

Ding explains why the trade works for Howard and the Lakers:

The Lakers need a healthy dose of gambling's fear to bring out the best in them--and the prospect of trading for Howard and losing him for nothing in a year is certainly plenty scary.

But the reality is that there are benefits awaiting the Lakers even in that worst-case scenario that could easily be explained by Dwight again being a loon who fails to listen to reason: What can you do if the goofy dude walks away from far more money from the Lakers because he wants to dress up like a cowboy in Dallas or curl all the way up into the fetal position in hometown Atlanta?

The Lakers are already absolutely opposed to paying monster salaries to Bryant, Gasol and Bynum in 2014-15, so even if it's just Bryant and Gasol (or whomever Gasol is traded for) left in 2013-14, the Lakers get a head start on major change and their necessary evil of getting under the luxury-tax plateau.

Ding notes that Bynum and the Magic also would benefit:

Trading Howard for a bunch of expiring contracts or unspectacular potential, mostly what everyone but the Lakers is offering, is hardly the means to renewing any optimism in Orlando. And it was clear from new Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan's tone during a news conference Monday that he appreciates his community's need to move forward as soon as possible with players who are committed to the cause and understand winning.

For all his quirks, Bynum does know what it takes, has no qualms about leaving the Lakers and is sincerely eager for a team to call his own. He is predisposed to knee injuries, but he is getting his second consecutive healthy summer to build himself up. He already became the bona fide best other center in basketball--and one who happens to be two years younger and in a contract situation to commit right now long-term to Orlando, precisely what Howard would not do.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:57 PM

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