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Friday, August 09, 2013

New York State of Mind, Part IV

In the summer of 2012, Phil Jackson called the Knicks' roster "clumsy." For quite some time I have been skeptical of the Knicks' rebuilding plan--or rebuilding plans: the Knicks seemed to put all of their eggs in the LeBron James basket (plan one) and then when it became clear that James wanted nothing to do with New York they acquired Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, two All-Stars who do not have complementary skill sets (plan two). Stoudemire functions best in screen/roll sets that exploit his athletic ability and excellent hands, while Anthony favors isolation sets that permit him to go one on one. Stoudemire is injury-prone and after playing in 78 of 82 games in his first season with New York he missed 76 out of 148 games the past two years. Anthony is a big-time scorer whose teams tend to do well in the regular season before flaming out in the first round of the playoffs. The Knicks won one playoff game in the first two years of the Anthony-Stoudemire era, which is not much of a return on an investment in two max level contracts.

Did the 2012-13 season finally validate the Knicks' Anthony-Stoudemire plan? New York posted a 54-28 record, second best in the Eastern Conference behind the 66-16 Miami Heat. In A Tale of Two Cities: The Rise of the Knicks and the Fall of the Lakers, I explained how the Knicks got off to a fast start in the 2012-13 season:

One obvious difference is that Carmelo Anthony has been very productive and efficient, posting the third highest scoring average of his career, the best three point shooting percentage of his career and the fourth best overall field goal percentage of his career. He is still not a great rebounder, passer or defender but it looks like he is in the best shape of his career and that he has committed himself to playing hard on a consistent basis instead of in fits and spurts. What caused Anthony to change? Coach Mike Woodson is holding Anthony accountable at both ends of the court and it appears that we are once again witnessing the Jason Kidd Effect, which may not be provable statistically but nevertheless exists: every team that Kidd joins becomes better and every team that he leaves becomes worse. Kidd is mentally and physically tough, he is unselfish and he is a defensive-minded player, four qualities that the Knicks have lacked for many years. Kidd is only fifth on the Knicks in minutes played and in his old age he has evolved from a dynamic point guard into a spot up three point shooter but the impact of his professionalism is being felt on and off the court. Simply put, the Knicks no longer play or act like knuckleheads...

Kidd will continue to be the consummate professional, as will fellow championship ring owners Tyson Chandler and Rasheed Wallace, but it remains to be seen if Anthony and J.R. Smith will be focused and efficient for the whole season; it also remains to be seen if the Knicks can maintain their extraordinary three point shooting and their virtually error-free ballhandling. The Knicks are better than I expected but I still am not convinced that Carmelo Anthony can be the best player on a championship team. It will be very interesting to see how far the Knicks advance in the 2013 playoffs.

I recognized that the Knicks had improved to some extent but I also questioned if the reasons behind that improvement were sustainable during the postseason. The Knicks did a decent job of maintaining their three point shooting prowess and they kept their turnover numbers low but Anthony went through a stretch in which he shot worse than .430 from the field in seven out of eight playoff games, finishing the 2013 playoffs with a .403 field goal percentage. Smith received a one game suspension in the first round, was ineffective when he returned to the lineup and he shot just .331 from the field during the postseason. Another important factor is that the Knicks had no answer for Father Time; saying that Kidd faded late in the season and during the playoffs would be a huge understatement: there is no doubt that his 40 year old heart and mind were willing but his body rebelled and he did not score a point in New York's final 10 playoff games. Scoring was never the most important part of Kidd's game but his inability to make a basket necessitated that the Knicks cut back his minutes, which diminished the impact of his leadership and toughness; in order to lead, a player has to be in the fray and not just offering wise words from the bench.

Other commentators provided much less measured analysis of the Knicks' regular season success, spewing hype about how great the Knicks are and about how Carmelo Anthony is an MVP caliber player--one voter even foolishly selected Anthony over LeBron James in the official MVP balloting. Hype does not win playoff games, though--and neither do flawed, "clumsy" rosters; the Knicks struggled to beat an aging, injury-depleted Boston Celtics team in the first round and then they got embarrassed 4-2 by the 49-32 Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. So, this is what several years of rebuilding--including tens of millions of dollars spent on Anthony and Stoudemire--achieved: one playoff series win. 

The Knicks' good 2012-13 regular season run did not at all justify the money that they are paying to Anthony and Stoudemire. While the Knicks played better last season than they did when Anthony and Stoudemire first joined forces, it must also be noted that the Knicks benefited from the injuries that took out several of the Eastern Conference's top players, most notably Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger. Kidd's decline hurt the Knicks in the playoffs and now that he is retired it will not be easy for the Knicks to replace the intangibles that he provided during most of the regular season.

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Further Reading

New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind, Part II

New York State of Mind, Part III

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:53 PM

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Monday, August 05, 2013

Ralph Wiley Describes the Young Kobe Bryant's Evolution

Ralph Wiley wrote brilliantly about many subjects but he had special insight regarding the nature of Kobe Bryant's genius--perhaps it takes a genius to fully appreciate the talent, work ethic and productivity of another genius. In an October 2001 GQ article titled "From Here to Infinity," Wiley described a young Bryant who had already accomplished a lot but who had not yet reached the height of his considerable powers.

Wiley began by mentioning the various relationships in Bryant's life--including those with his parents, his new wife Vanessa, his teammate Shaquille O'Neal and his Coach Phil Jackson--before stating a hard truth that does not only apply to Bryant:

But he is still basically alone. A man can't afford not to see things as they are. Alone. That's how we come here; that's how we leave. In the meantime, we have to work with things as they are and with people as they come. A man, even a flying man, can't afford not to face the gravity of these facts.

The O'Neal-Bryant Lakers won their second consecutive championship in 2001 but Bryant faced some adversity during the season, including a peculiar public accusation by Jackson, who said that Bryant had "sabotaged" games in high school so that he could lead fourth quarter comebacks. Bryant denied the charge and he also rejected the idea that he needed some kind of extra motivation but he also showed a surprising maturity/sense of humor about the situation; after Jackson made the comment, the Lakers had a practice in which Bryant's team was winning easily and Jackson took Bryant out to rest, whereupon Bryant joked, "Yo, Phil, put me back in there--so I can sabotage us and hit the winning shot," a line that elicited laughter from everyone, including Jackson.

Wiley called Bryant "a loner, in that he knew no one like him, with his set of skills and interests...He had to learn to trust others in the NBA. Only another ball genius could help him see what he had to do, convince him he'd have to do it, if he wanted to win, really win."

That genius was Jerry West. Wiley noted West's accomplishments as a player, as well as the frustration West felt because he only won one NBA title. Wiley correctly concluded, "For a Patrick Ewing, a Charles Barkley, a Pistol Pete Maravich, one NBA title would be a godsend. For a West or a Bryant, one NBA title is only one. There are levels to the game. Kobe Bryant could dig on Jerry West."

West and Bryant are both perfectionists, players focused intently on their own self-improvement, but West convinced Bryant that to win championships Bryant had to not only elevate his own individual game but also help his teammates be the best that they could be. Bryant told Wiley, "I've always had a different mind-set. I would try to destroy whomever I was playing against in practice. Go for the jugular...But I realize for the team's sake it's about how many people you elevate."

One of the most fascinating things about reading Wiley's 2001 article is that so many critics act like Bryant did not learn these lessons until very late in his career, if at all--but of course if that were true then Bryant would not have been able to play an integral role on the 2000-02 championship teams.Wiley recognized that Bryant had not completed his growth process but that Bryant had made significant progress in a very short period of time despite the enormous pressure placed on him after jumping straight from high school to the NBA.

Kobe Bryant version 2001 was already great, but Wiley foresaw how much greater Bryant could--and would--become:

If you are Kobe Bryant, you are a complex man, not the kind who can be measured at a glance, so people misunderstand you, people you know and care about. There isn't anything you can say to make those close to you understand, let alone the rest. Your game was forged in solitude. You are young, so you are going to make mistakes. This is part of the making of a man.

Bryant was not only developing his mental and psychological game; Bryant's personal trainer Joe Carbone told Wiley that the 23 year old Bryant was "not physically mature yet. When he finally matures, around age 26, 27, it'll be like nothing you've ever seen before. We won't know what it'll be like until we see it. I know this: Whoever's relaxing right now, whoever's on vacation--they've already lost their chance." Bryant turned 27 just before the 2005-06 season; O'Neal had already talked his way out of L.A.--loudly demanding to be given a max deal even though he had previously delayed surgery by offering the lame excuse, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time"--and Bryant won his first scoring title by averaging 35.4 ppg, including 43.4 ppg in January, the highest scoring calendar month by an NBA player in more than 40 years. Bryant carried a severely talent-deprived roster--Lamar Odom was the second best player, followed next in the rotation (in order of total minutes played) by Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Devean George, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook--to the playoffs.

Wiley did not live to see the Bryant who averaged 35.4 ppg, let alone the Bryant who carried the Lakers to back to back championships sans O'Neal--and yet Wiley did see that Bryant, at least in his mind's eye: in 2002 Wiley wrote about The Seven Voyages of Kobe and he envisioned Bryant carving out a very special place in history:

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:54 AM

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