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Friday, March 07, 2014

Sans Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers Sink to Historic Lows

The L.A. Lakers went 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's cameo appearance this season and some commentators wondered aloud if the Lakers were better off without Bryant. The reality is that the Lakers were not particularly good with Bryant but that they are awful without him. I predicted that by the time Bryant returned the Lakers would have the worst record in the Western Conference; it is not clear if Bryant will play again this season but after last night's 142-94 loss to the L.A. Clippers--the biggest win in Clippers' history and the biggest loss in Lakers' history--the Lakers are 21-41, a half game behind Utah for last place in the West. Even if the Lakers were in the comically inept Eastern Conference they would be 12th in the standings, ahead of only Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Lakers have gone 9-28 since Bryant last suited up; their defense is non-existent, their effort level is deplorable and Bryant summed up the entire state of affairs by commenting, "It's like when big brother is not around, he starts doing some crazy (stuff). It's been rough."

Yes, Bryant's "little brothers" have been doing some "crazy (stuff)" now that Bryant is not around to police the locker room and the practice court. Say what you will about Bryant's demeanor--and many people have said a lot of negative things about Bryant's leadership skills--but Bryant made sure that his teammates practiced hard, played hard and did not do "crazy (stuff)." That kind of leader/teammate is only considered "difficult" by people who do not understand how much effort and sacrifice it takes to create and sustain a winning program.

The Lakers' abject collapse without Bryant this season provides some indication of his impact, reaffirming what I have been saying for years: the Lakers' overall talent level has been overrated. Bryant carried weak Lakers' teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 and he led the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 with a sidekick, Pau Gasol, who had not won a single playoff game prior to becoming a Laker and with a group of bench players who, for the most part, hardly distinguished themselves before or after getting championship rings courtesy of Bryant. It could be argued that the Lakers are even more talent-depleted now than they were in 2006 and 2007 and it is undeniable that injuries to several players have taken their toll but it is odd that more is not made of the fact that without Bryant on the court for most of the season the Lakers have devolved from a playoff team to a laughingstock. Losing Dwight Howard clearly has hurt the Lakers but he was not fully healthy last season and if Pau Gasol were as good as so many people say then he would be able to carry a team at least to within shouting distance of a .500 record sans Bryant and Howard.

After LeBron James left Cleveland, media members incorrectly ignored all of the other changes that the Cavs made and attributed all of the team's decline to James' departure, without noting that the franchise had also changed the front office staff, the coaching staff and most of the roster. The Lakers have problems that extend beyond Bryant's absence and it would not be correct to say that the Lakers are terrible only because Bryant is inactive--but in his prime Bryant carried some pretty awful teams to the playoffs without getting much credit from the MVP voters, so the Lakers' collapse this season does provide further context regarding just how well Bryant performed during the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker "era." If Bryant can return to full health next season, it will be interesting to see just what the Lakers look like, particularly if they are not able to add much talent to the roster in the offseason.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 PM

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Pass First Players Do Not Score 61 Points in a Game

LeBron James scored a career-high/Miami Heat franchise single-game record 61 points in the Heat's 124-107 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday. He shot 22-33 from the field--including 8-10 from three point range--and 9-12 from the free throw line while accumulating seven rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers. James is the 23rd player in NBA history to score at least 60 points in a regular season game; Larry Miller (67 points), Zelmo Beaty (63 points), Julius Erving (63 points) and Stew Johnson (62 points) accomplished this feat in the ABA. A journeyman NBA player can get hot and score 40 points and most All-Stars are capable of dropping 50 points under the right conditions but the 60 point plateau is hallowed ground for a scorer: most of the players who scored at least 60 points in a game have either already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame or else are certain to be inducted as soon as they become eligible; the few exceptions are the aforementioned Miller, Beaty and Johnson, plus Tom Chambers and Gilbert Arenas: Miller was a good player who had an exceptional game, Beaty made the All-Star team five times in two leagues, Johnson earned three ABA All-Star selections, Chambers was a four-time NBA All-Star and Arenas made the NBA All-Star team three times.

Many of the members of the 60 Point Club were/are great playmakers in addition to being great scorers but none of those players could accurately be called a "pass first" player. James often refers to himself (and is frequently described by others) as a "pass first" player, a contention that I have repeatedly disputed: after James ransacked the Boston Celtics for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Miami's 98-79 victory in the sixth game of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, I wrote, "Contrary to what so many people have written/said, James is not a 'pass first' player; he is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Magic Johnson was a 'pass first' player and it was major news when he scored more than 40 points, a plateau he only reached six times in his regular season career (three times hitting exactly that number) and four times in his playoff career; James has scored at least 40 points 48 times in the regular season (including nine 50 point games, seventh on the all-time list) and 11 times in the playoffs. It is understandably confusing to James' teammates (and outside observers) when he spends the first three quarters of a game looking like one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and then spends the final 12 minutes standing in the corner; that is not being unselfish or being a 'pass first' player: that is failing to accept the responsibility associated with being an MVP level player and that is worthy of criticism, regardless of what Mike Breen or Jeff Van Gundy say."

James has outgrown his reticence to take over as a scorer in playoff games against elite defensive teams and it is no coincidence that after he accepted that responsbility he led the Heat to back to back championships. James always had the ability to pile up points by bulling his way to the hoop but now he has added a solid post up game and a reliable perimeter shot to augment his athletic ability and size. He has also vastly improved his shot selection. When James is taking good shots and when his perimeter game is flowing he is unguardable; even when he takes bad shots and his jumper is off it is no picnic to check him but at least in those situations he is not getting dunks, layups and free throws.

James has assembled an impressive resume as a scorer:
  1. James ranks third in ABA/NBA regular season history with a 27.5 ppg scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg). 
  2. James ranks third in ABA/NBA playoff history with a 28.1 ppg scoring average, trailing only Jordan (33.5 ppg), Allen Iverson (29.7 ppg), Jerry West (29.1 ppg) and Kevin Durant (28.6 ppg).
  3. James has averaged at least 26.7 ppg for 10 consecutive seasons after scoring 20.9 ppg as a rookie entering the NBA straight out of high school.
  4. James won the 2007-08 scoring title with a 30.0 ppg average and that is not even his single season career-high; he finished third in the NBA with a 31.4 ppg average in 2005-06.
  5. James has ranked no lower than fourth in the league in regular season scoring average in each of the past 10 seasons; in addition to claiming the aforementioned 2008 scoring title, he also finished second three straight years (2009-11).
  6. James has scored at least 50 points in 10 regular season games, ranking seventh on the all-time ABA/NBA list behind only Chamberlain (105), Jordan (30), Kobe Bryant (24), Elgin Baylor (14), Rick Barry (13) and Iverson (11). 
  7. Early this season, James reached double figures in scoring for the 500th consecutive game and his still active streak of 551 games ranks fourth in NBA history, trailing only Jordan (866), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (787) and Karl Malone (575).
  8. James ranks 33rd in ABA/NBA regular season history with 22,614 points. At his current pace, he will vault into the top 10 in less than three years.
  9. James ranks 10th in ABA/NBA playoff history with 3871 points. If he continues to score prolifically while leading the Heat on deep postseason runs then he will move into fifth place in two years.
Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 AM

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