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Saturday, March 02, 2013

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James Win February Player of the Month Awards

The much anticipated LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals showdown may never materialize but the NBA's best player and the NBA's five-time Lord of the Rings are both performing at a very high level. James led the Miami Heat to a 12-1 record in February while averaging 29.7 ppg (first in the league during the month) on .641 field goal shooting (tied for the league lead during the month) and contributing 7.8 apg, a team-high 7.5 rpg and 1.9 spg. He set an NBA record by scoring at least 30 points and shooting at least .600 from the field in six straight games. James has won 24 Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards, including all four this season and seven of the last nine overall. James is without question the 2012-13 NBA MVP, despite attempts by some media members to drum up interest in other candidates; Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and perhaps one or two other players are operating at an MVP-caliber level but no one has been as dominant, productive and efficient as James.

Bryant is playing some of the best and most efficient basketball of his career as he tries to lift the injury-battered and often listless L.A. Lakers into playoff contention; the Lakers went 9-4 in February as Bryant led the team in scoring (23.9 ppg) and assists (6.6 apg) while also averaging 6.7 rpg. He has scored at least 30 points in a game 24 times this season, tied with Durant for the NBA lead in that category. This is the 17th time that Bryant has won the Player of the Month award. He earned his first such honor in December 2000, the last season when the league selected just one Player of the Month; starting with the 2001-02 season, the NBA chose a Player of the Month for each conference.

Bryant has indicated that he might retire when his contract expires after next season but Kevin Ding eloquently asked Bryant to reconsider:

Game 1,440 was not unlike the others.

The Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night. Counting the playoffs, it was Kobe Bryant's 1,440th NBA game.

And Bryant was great again.

Not just pretty good. Not just flashes of greatness.

Great.

Still great.

Artfully, inspirationally, intensely, winningly great.

So great...and yet not particularly greater than he was in Dallas a few days back, or the game before that with 29 after halftime to beat Portland, or when he twice had 14 assists in back-to-back victories over Utah and Oklahoma City in late January, or the time his fanatical prep work and relentless chasing left Brandon Jennings certain no one in the history of the game had ever defended a point guard that well (and also had 31 on 12-of-19 shooting and six assists), or all of December with Bryant's 33.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists across the board higher than he has averaged in any month in any year of his career.

The Lakers' day-to-day struggles have obscured the work of art that Bryant has erected over the past four months with those bent and battered fingers and his usual common-man tools of hard work, fundamentals, dedication and desire...

Retirement should not even be on Kobe Bryant's radar.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Lakers Discover Correct Formula

The L.A. Lakers have stumbled and bumbled through most of this season but they have gone 11-4 in their past 15 games and they seem to have discovered the correct formula for success. When I praised the series of moves that essentially swapped Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, I envisioned a team whose defense would be anchored by Howard's mobile, agile presence in the paint and whose offense would attack in multiple ways: screen/roll actions with Howard/Nash, high-low play with Howard and Pau Gasol, isolation sets featuring Kobe Bryant and open corner three pointers for Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake and other shooters as a result of defenses scrambling to contain Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Nash. On paper, a healthy Lakers' squad matches up well with any team in the league. Of course, we all know that the season has not turned out that way at all: Howard is still not 100% physically, Nash broke his leg in the second game, Gasol has missed 21 games due to injury (and is out of action indefinitely due to a torn platar fascia) and Bryant has been asked to do everything from scoring 30 points on .500-plus shooting to posting double digit assists to guarding faster, younger guards to trying to convince Howard to take a more serious approach. The Lakers fired Coach Mike Brown after just five games, went 4-1 under interim Coach Bernie Bickerstaff and then struggled to adjust to Coach Mike D'Antoni's system, which does not quite mesh with the skill set strengths and weaknesses of the Lakers' key players.

The injuries that have limited Howard, Gasol and Nash are by far the biggest reason that the Lakers have failed to meet expectations but it is also undeniable that the Lakers did not play correctly until very recently: they lacked energy, effort and organization defensively, while their high turnover rate offensively negated their solid field goal shooting and wasted arguably the most efficient season of Bryant's career (despite a January slump, Bryant is still shooting a career-high .469 from the field). What has changed in the past 15 games? Howard has regained a lot--but not all--of his former bounce physically and as his athletic prowess has returned his attitude and energy level have improved: Howard is shutting down the paint on defense and his active screen-setting on offense has made the Lakers difficult to guard even without Gasol. Bryant won the Western Conference Player of the Week award for February 19-24 after averaging 31.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 6.0 apg as the Lakers went 3-0, beating Boston, Portland and Dallas. Earl Clark has performed solidly as a "stretch four" in place of Gasol; the Lakers are not better without Gasol than they are with him (their improvement has more to do with Howard's rise than Gasol's absence) but Gasol is a declining player and the Lakers would have been well served if they could have traded Gasol for a young, athletic small forward, enabling D'Antoni to surround Howard with four active, small players. Nash returned to his .500/.400/.900 shooting ways in January and he is again shooting better than .500 from the field and better than .400 from the three point line in February (his February free throw percentage is .846).

If the Lakers avoid any more injuries and if Bryant, Howard and Nash continue to play the way that they have in the past 15 games or so then the Lakers are capable of winning at least 18 of their final 25 games, which should be enough to squeeze into the playoffs as the eighth seed. It is still difficult to picture the Lakers winning a seven game series against an elite team but if the Lakers make the playoffs then they will be a team that actually fits the overused cliche about being a squad that no one wants to face: dealing with the Bryant-Howard-Nash trio in a playoff series could be a formidable task even for San Antonio or Oklahoma City and if Gasol is able to contribute anything then the Lakers will present some serious matchup problems. Role players Metta World Peace, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison will have to be productive for the Lakers to salvage their season and possibly make some noise in the playoffs. The 1995 Rockets won the championship as a sixth seed with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler leading the way while role players made key contributions; it will be interesting to see if Bryant and Howard can rally the Lakers in similar fashion. I would not bet on it at this point--but that scenario looks more plausible today than it did even two weeks ago.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:14 PM

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pete Vecsey Unplugged at In All Airness

Greg from DrJStuff shared the obscure Estonian basketball footage of Julius Erving that I cited in my Dr. J is 63 years old article and now he has brought to my attention another real treat for basketball researchers as well as casual fans: an Australian website called In all Airness that features several podcast interviews with a diverse cast including Sam Smith, Ray Clay and Christian Laettner. Pete Vecsey, who introduced the "In Memoriam" tribute at the 2013 Legends Brunch, retired from the New York Post last July, so it is a real treat to hear him speak his mind "unplugged"; he talked with In all Airness for more than an hour and a half, discussing subjects ranging from Wilt Chamberlain to Oscar Robertson to Rick Barry to Julius Erving to Drazen Petrovic to Vecsey's well-publicized feud with Charles Barkley. As usual, Vecsey does not mince words; whether you agree with him or not, whether you like his style or not, Vecsey is smart, fearless and opinionated so it is always interesting to hear his take--and he deserves a lot of credit for publicly rebuking the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for not inducting Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, Artis Gilmore, Dennis Johnson, Chet Walker, and Jamaal Wilkes, all of whom are now Hall of Famers. Vecsey's sharp tongue cost him money and created a long list of enemies and I am not suggesting that Vecsey is always right or that I always agree with him but I respect someone who is more interested in speaking the truth as he sees it than he is in trying to become friends with the rich and the powerful.

You can check out the Vecsey podcast here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM

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