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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Andrew Bynum Benefited from Kobe Bryant's Mentoring

For several years, many media members tried to manufacture some kind of alleged conflict between Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum. While there is no doubt that Bryant became exasperated at times by Bynum's immaturity and inconsistent effort, Bryant clearly was a much better mentor to Bynum than Shaquille O'Neal was to Bryant when O'Neal was the top player in the league and Bryant was a young, emerging star. Early in the 2007-08 season--the season which concluded with the first of the Lakers' three straight NBA Finals appearances in the post-O'Neal era--I asked Bryant about his approach toward mentoring Bynum:

As the other reporters drifted away to file their stories, I asked Bryant this follow-up: "At one point, you were in Andrew's position on the team--you were the young guy out of high school on a veteran team and now this is almost a role reversal. What did you learn from your experience of being the young player on a veteran team that helps you know what to say, when to say it and how to say it to Andrew? It's not just giving the right information; how you present it to him affects how open he will be, as a young person, to receiving it." Bryant answered, "I understand how to communicate to him a little bit more because I was in that position and a lot of times I felt like people really talked down to me, you know what I mean? 'This kid this' and 'this kid that,' that sort of thing, and it just rubbed me the wrong way. So, from my experience of going through that I understand now that I don't want to put him in that position. I want him to feel like he can come in and contribute, that he is valued on this ball club and that all I am trying to do is help him out to be the best that he can be."

I then asked Bryant, "Do you give him advice about how to relate to other players, from your own experience as a young player that maybe you did things, not intentionally, that rubbed veterans the wrong way in some sense?"

Bryant replied, "It's funny, because when I came into the league the age range was completely different. If I came into the league nowadays out of high school I never would have had that problem (because there would be plenty of other young players to interact with). People don't understand that's how young kids behave. This team is different (than the Lakers team that Kobe first joined). We have a lot of young guys here and also I'm here to help him out a lot. We bring him into the group; if we go out to dinner or whatever we do, we include him in it and that is part of it."

Next, I asked, "Do you feel like you weren't included as much when you were a young player? Was that partially because the age difference was much greater?"

Bryant answered, "It's all about age difference. Those guys were 28, 29, 30 years old, married--and I was 17, 18 years old, couldn't go anywhere. A lot of times I felt like I was a burden to a lot of guys and they didn't want to deal with that burden. I don't want Andrew to feel that way."

O'Neal never wanted a mentor/student relationship with Bryant; O'Neal always viewed Bryant as a rival and treated him as such, even though they were teammates and even though their team needed each player to perform at a high level in order to be successful. Bryant has taken a different and much healthier view about mentor/student relationships ever since he became old enough to assume the role that O'Neal failed to fill for Bryant when Bryant was young. Bryant embraced the opportunity to serve as a mentor during Andrew Bynum's seven year career with the L.A. Lakers and Bryant--through both words and deeds--set an example for Bynum about what it means not just to be a professional but to be a professional at the elite level. Bynum has not yet completely matured either as a person or as a player but Bryant indisputably played a major role in the strides that Bynum has already made.

O'Neal publicly feuded with Bryant and rarely missed an opportunity to criticize Bryant for both real and imagined shortcomings. In contrast, Bryant has privately critiqued Bynum but publicly supported him, even when Bynum fell short of reasonable performance expectations. After the Lakers' 99-84 game three loss to Denver in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Bynum candidly admitted, "I wasn't ready to play. That's really it. I just wasn't really ready." Bynum failed to score in the first half as the Lakers fell behind 55-39, so the truth of his statement is self evident but Bryant refused to publicly bash his teammate: "That's not what cost us the ballgame," Bryant said when asked about Bynum's lackadaisical effort. Bryant knew that the media would blast Bynum--and rightly so--and Bryant understood that no good would result from him adding his voice to that chorus of criticism.

Although Bynum has made significant strides, his development is clearly still a work in progress; he does not play hard on a consistent basis, he frequently says and does boneheaded things (on and off the court) and he complains about his touches even though he frequently does not battle for good low post position and even though he is far too often befuddled by double teams. Prior to game five of the Denver series, Bynum boasted that closeout games are "kind of easy" and then he proceeded to sleepwalk through most of that contest as Javale McGee--who spent most of the season "starring" in Shaquille O'Neal's "Shaqtin the Fool" segments on TNT--outplayed him at both ends of the court. The Lakers trailed by as many as 15 points before a late Bryant-fueled rally almost stole the game but Bryant--who finished with 43 points in the 102-99 loss--put things in proper perspective: "I wouldn't say the energy kicked in in the fourth quarter. I almost bailed us out, is what happened. That's something you can't rely on if you're going to win a championship."

Bryant gets it; he understands what kind of preparation it takes to perform like a champion and he understands the delicate balance between inspiring a teammate to work on his game and beating a teammate down through relentless verbal sniping that destroys camaraderie instead of creating it. Will Bynum use the lessons he learned from Bryant in L.A. to become a veteran leader for the Philadelphia 76ers and a legit number one option on a contending team? That remains to be seen but Bryant provided a nice blueprint for Bynum if Bynum is smart enough and mature enough to use it.

There is an impressive list of players--ranging from the sublime (future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (legend in his own mind Smush Parker) who played for at least two teams and had the best season of their careers while playing alongside Bryant. Bynum emerged as an All-Star last season and had the best season of his career in part because of Bryant's patient tutelage; it will be interesting to see if Bynum continues the growth process that Bryant helped to start.


Partial list of players who had career-best seasons as Kobe Bryant's teammate

Shaquille O'Neal (2000 regular season MVP)
Pau Gasol (2011 All-NBA Second Team)
Lamar Odom (2011 Sixth Man of the Year)
Sasha Vujacic (Career-high FG%, eighth in NBA in 3FG% in 2008)
Chris Mihm (Career-high RPG, FG% in 2005)
Brian Cook (Career-highs in PPG, RPG, FG% in 2006)
Chucky Atkins (Career-highs in PPG, RPG in 2005)
Slava Medvedenko (Career-highs in PPG, RPG in 2004)
Kwame Brown (Career-highs in BPG and FG%, second best PPG average in 2007)
Smush Parker (Career-highs in PPG, RPG, APG, SPG, FG% in 2006)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 PM


Monday, August 20, 2012

2012 Team USA Report Card

After the 2008 Olympics, I wrote a Team USA report card using the following methodology:

Players are listed in order of minutes played because that statistic provides a hint about Coach Mike Krzyzewski's evaluation...It should go without saying--but I'll say it anyway--that it is not meaningful to compare a player's numbers in 40 minute games played under FIBA rules with his numbers in 48 minute games played under NBA rules...

The grades listed below represent how well a particular player filled his respective role on the team; obviously, some players had bigger roles than others, so a bench player's "B" does not mean the same thing as a starter's "B." Production when games were close is given a heavier weight than production that took place after the victories were already well in hand.

I applied the same methodology when issuing these grades for Team USA's 2012 squad. Overall Olympic statistics for all 12 players are listed in parentheses after each player's name, while the three game elimination round statistics are provided right before the grades for each of the top six players in the rotation. Each player appeared in all eight Olympic games except for Anthony Davis, who did not play in Team USA's 99-94 win over Lithuania.

Kevin Durant (26.0 mpg, 19.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 13 steals, five blocked shots)

Durant led the Olympics in total points scored by one point (156-155) over Argentina's Manu Ginobili and he broke Spencer Haywood's 44 year old Team USA record for most points scored in a single Olympics; Durant finished second in scoring average to Australia's Patrick Mills, who poured in 21.2 ppg in his six games. Durant shot a blistering .523 from three point range but he only shot .417 (15-26) on two pointers; this is a reversal of his MVP performance in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, when he shot a still excellent .456 from three point range while shooting .632 (48-76) on two pointers. In the Olympics, Durant filled the role of designated long distance sniper, assassinating opposing teams as punishment for packing their defenders in the paint. Durant also played a very solid floor game, ranking second on the team in rebounding, second in steals and fourth in assists.

Elimination round statistics: 21.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, .7 apg, .444 overall FG%, .438 3FG%

Grade: "A"

Chris Paul (25.8 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.1 apg, 20 steals, zero blocked shots)

Paul led the Olympics in steals and ranked third in assists (second on the team behind LeBron James); as those numbers suggest, he did an excellent job both distributing the ball on offense and pressuring the ball on defense. This team did not need or expect him to score the way that he does in the NBA but, as usual, Paul was very efficient when he shot the ball (.510 field goal percentage, including .464 from three point range).

Elimination round statistics: 9.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 4.0 apg, .500 overall FG%, .455 3FG%

Grade: "A"

LeBron James (25.1 mpg, 13.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.6 apg, 11 steals, two blocked shots)

James was the consensus MVP of the Olympics, filling up all boxscore categories and proving to be a matchup nightmare on both ends of the court at all five positions; he played center in Team USA's deadliest lineup, a "small" unit featuring Durant at power forward alongside Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and either Deron Williams or Carmelo Anthony. James shot .603 from the field, doing most of his damage in the paint; he shot just 6-20 (.300) from three point range. James led Team USA in assists while ranking third in scoring, rebounding and steals; his elimination round statistics--which include the first triple double by a Team USA player in Olympic competition--are even more impressive.

Elimination round statistics: 16.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 7.7 apg, .594 FG%, .250 3FG%

Grade: "A"

Deron Williams (18.0 mpg, 9.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 4.6 apg, four steals, one blocked shot)

Williams inexplicably struggled with his two point shot (10-27, .370) but he shot 13-32 (.406) on three pointers, had an even better assist/turnover ratio than Chris Paul and he averaged more minutes than any other bench player. Williams padded some of his numbers during a few of Team USA's blowout wins and he only played 10 minutes in the gold medal game.

Elimination round statistics: 10.0 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 3.0 apg, .348 FG%, .438 3FG%

Grade: "B-"

Carmelo Anthony (17.8 mpg, 16.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.3 apg, four steals, zero blocked shots)

Anthony bounced back to some extent from a subpar 2008 Olympics--when he shot just .422 from the field--but his numbers are tremendously skewed by his Team USA record 37 point shooting exhibition against an overmatched Nigeria team; in the other seven games, Anthony averaged 13.3 ppg while shooting .471 from the field and .382 from three point range--a solid performance but far short of the 21.2 ppg on .613 field goal shooting (including .578 from three point range) that Anthony produced during the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship when some people asserted that Anthony is a perfect fit as a stretch four in FIBA play. Anthony is a shoot first player--in both NBA and FIBA competition--who can rebound when he is so inclined but is indifferent at best defensively. When he shot well he provided instant offense but it is noteworthy that when the score was close he was often on the bench; he scored just eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting versus Spain in the gold medal game as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul did the heavy lifting.

Elimination round statistics: 14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, .457 FG%, .381 3FG%

Grade: "B-"

Kobe Bryant (17.5 mpg, 12.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.3 apg, nine steals, zero blocked shots)

Bryant struggled with his two point shot (13-31, .419) but he connected at a .436 clip from three point range and he led the team in free throw shooting (.909, 10th in the Olympics and third among players who attempted at least 20 free throws). Other than his two point field goal percentage, Bryant did everything the coaching staff wanted and expected for him to do; Bryant ranked fourth on the team in scoring and steals, he still pressured the ball on defense, he still delivered points against top opposition when necessary and he was almost always on the court whenever the score was close late in the game. Bryant ranked second on the team in scoring during the elimination round games, including a team-high 20 points in the quarterfinal victory over Australia. Coach Krzyzewski drastically limited Bryant's minutes in blowouts, so Bryant did not have the opportunity to pad his numbers the way that some of his teammates did but Bryant performed very well in the elimination round and he finished his undefeated Team USA career (26-0 in three FIBA events, not including exhibition play during which Team USA was also undefeated with Bryant on the roster) with 17 points on 5-10 field goal shooting in the gold medal game. Bryant was clearly the lead dog on Team USA from when he joined the team in 2007 until very recently but he adjusted well to James' ascension as the best overall player on the team.

Elimination round statistics: 16.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, .471 FG%, .522 3FG%

Grade: "A"

Kevin Love (17.0 mpg, 11.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg, .4 apg, two steals, two blocked shots)

Love's role significantly increased since 2010, when he only averaged 8.8 mpg in the FIBA World Championship. He carved out a nice niche for himself as a rebounder off of the bench, tying Pau Gasol for the overall tournament lead with 61 rebounds and pacing Team USA with a 7.6 rpg average. Love did not start a game but he had a bigger impact on the team than starting center Tyson Chandler. Love will likely never be as valuable or productive in FIBA play as he is in the NBA because he is not a mobile FIBA big man in the Pau Gasol/Luis Scola mold and he obviously does not possess the athletic gifts of Team USA FIBA big men LeBron James and Kevin Durant; Love earned his minutes by playing very hard and by relentlessly pursuing the ball.

Grade: "A"

Russell Westbrook (13.8 mpg, 8.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.6 apg, seven steals, zero blocked shots)

Westbrook had a much smaller role in the 2012 Olympics than he had in the 2010 FIBA World Championship when he ranked third on the team in scoring, assists and steals--but that is not a reflection on Westbrook as much as it is a reflection on just how deep and talented this squad was: the addition of James, Bryant and Paul--key members of the 2008 Olympic team who did not play for the 2010 FIBA World Championship team--understandably moved Westbrook further back in the rotation. Westbrook's main contribution during his limited minutes was to apply pressure defense against opposing point guards.

Grade: "B"

Andre Iguodala (12.1 mpg, 4.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, five steals, five blocked shots)

Like Westbrook, Iguodala's role was vastly reduced compared to 2010; Iguodala started every game in the FIBA World Championship but that obviously was not going to happen with James and Bryant on the roster. Iguodala accumulated most of his numbers during garbage time but he was very effective whenever he played.

Grade: "A"

Tyson Chandler (11.3 mpg, 4.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, .4 apg, three steals, four blocked shots)

Chandler's performance, though not quite as bad as his 2010 FIBA World Championship outing (when he not only lost the starting center role but eventually dropped completely out of the rotation), was mediocre at best. He rebounded adequately on a per minute basis but was not effective enough offensively or defensively to deserve significant playing time; he started every game and then promptly went to the bench either because he got into early foul trouble or just because Coach Krzyzewski preferred to use a better, more versatile player. In 2010, Chandler tied for fourth on the team in fouls committed despite only averaging 8.6 mpg and this time around he took advantage of slightly more playing time to raise his ranking to a tie for third in fouls committed. The ideal FIBA big man for Team USA--other than LeBron James and Kevin Durant--is Chris Bosh because of his mobility and versatility or Dwight Howard, who has a freakish combination of size, speed and agility; injuries prevented Bosh and Howard from playing, so Chandler inherited the center spot by default.

Grade: "C-"

James Harden (9.1 mpg, 5.5 ppg, .6 rpg, .8 apg, four steals, one blocked shot)

Harden had an excellent regular season, a very good playoffs and a forgettable NBA Finals but--short of injuries or foul trouble--there was no way that he was going to get into the rotation on this team. I gave Danny Granger an "I" for "incomplete" in my 2010 FIBA World Championship report card and Harden essentially filled the same garbage time role for this team.

Grade: "I"

Anthony Davis (7.6 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, zero assists, one steal, three blocked shots)

Davis, who could very well have a prominent role in the future for Team USA, served as the human victory cigar in the 2012 Olympics but this was a valuable experience for him that could yield dividends for both his NBA and FIBA careers.

Grade: "I"

Final Thoughts:

During the five game pre-Olympic exhibition tour, Coach Krzyzewski tinkered with his rotation but he used the same starting lineup throughout the Olympics: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler.

The original, one and only Dream Team faced no serious competition in 1992--but just eight years later Team USA only beat Lithuania 85-83 in the Olympic semifinal round and only led France 76-72 with 4:26 left in the gold medal game before winning 85-75. Team USA failed to win the gold medal in the next three major FIBA events (2002 FIBA World Championship, 2004 Olympics, 2006 FIBA World Championship) before Jerry Colangelo got the program back on track; the additions of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd upgraded the backcourt defensively and provided the right championship mindset for the team. Coach Krzyzewski did not know the games of all of Greece's players nor could he figure out how to contain Greece's screen/roll actions in Team USA's 101-95 loss in the 2006 FIBA World Championship but that has turned out to be the only blemish in his FIBA coaching career. Team USA cannot just show up with any coach and any 12 players and expect to win FIBA events but Colangelo has put together a program that should be able to sustain success even as new players (and possibly a new coach) are brought on board in the future.

The conclusion from my 2010 Team USA report card is still valid and relevant today:

"While I enjoyed watching this team play, it is hilarious to read/listen to much of the mainstream commentary about FIBA play in general and Team USA in particular; we are consistently told that in order to win in FIBA events you have to have big men and you have to have shooters, despite the fact that both of these contentions have repeatedly been refuted: Team USA's winning recipe consists of stingy defense--particularly versus screen/roll plays and versus opposing three point shooters--forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. Team USA's halfcourt offense will never be as smooth or sophisticated as the halfcourt offenses of the other elite FIBA teams, true back to the basket big men are not as valuable as versatile, mobile forwards who can face the basket offensively and guard multiple positions defensively and the ability to hit three point shots is not nearly as important as the ability to defend against opposing three point shooters; reread the preceding sentence and you will understand why Michael Redd and Carlos Boozer hardly played for the 2008 version of Team USA and why Stephen Curry and Tyson Chandler reprised those players' respective roles on the 2010 version of Team USA--but I have no doubt that prior to the 2012 Olympics we will once again hear "experts" declaring how important it is for Team USA to add shooting specialists and big men to the roster."

Further Reading

2008 Team USA Olympics Report Card

Kevin Durant Leads the Way as Team USA Wins FIBA World Championship for First Time Since 1994

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:46 PM