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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Westbrook's Intensity Stood Out in Otherwise Desultory All-Star Game

NBA All-Star Weekend was filled with verbal and video tributes to Kobe Bryant but the best and most fitting tribute to Bryant in his farewell All-Star Game is the way that Russell Westbrook played en route to becoming the first player to win outright MVPs in consecutive NBA All-Star Games: Westbrook poured in 31 points on 12-23 field goal shooting while grabbing a team-high eight rebounds, passing for five assists and swiping a game-high five steals in just 22 minutes. This is not just about numbers, though. Westbrook played like he actually cared who won the game and like he actually takes pride in competition. That kind of relentless attitude is what sets Bryant apart from his peers and is an example of why Bryant has said that Westbrook reminds him of himself.

It is poignant that, after 20 seasons, Bryant is no longer physically capable of playing with that kind of intensity for extended stretches; Bryant had 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes and TNT's Shaquille O'Neal noted that when he asked Bryant during the contest when Bryant was going to take over Bryant gestured to indicate that he could not do that. Before the game, Bryant told TNT's Craig Sager that he hoped for a game with competitive spirit in which the West emerged victorious. Sadly, not only can Bryant no longer push himself to the ultimate limits anymore but he also cannot force the next generation of elite players to push themselves to the ultimate limits.

The All-Star Game is an exhibition event but it is not supposed to be a farce. The Western Conference's 196-173 victory over the Eastern Conference featured fewer moments of real competition than a contest between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals. Numerous records were smashed but the video game numbers lose meaning when there is no defensive resistance. Two of the most telling records set are most three pointers made by both teams (51) and fewest free throws made by both teams (four). Players repeatedly jacked up uncontested shots from several feet behind the three point line and when they were not doing that they drove the lane for uncontested dunks.

The All-Star Game looked like a funhouse version of the style of play embraced by "stat gurus": dunks and three pointers. The usage of the three point shot evolved significantly from the 1960s through the mid-2000s and in the past few years the usage of the three point shot has increased more dramatically than it did in the previous several decades. That is not necessarily a bad thing; simple math proves that a 40% three point shooter accumulates the same number of points in 100 shots as a 60% two point shooter (something that I used to say, in vain, during the late 1980s when the three point line first showed up in rec league games and my old school teammates thought that I was shooting too many three pointers). The three point shot is a powerful weapon when correctly used but in order to win a championship a team must still be able to attack the paint (this is now done less by post up and more by dribble penetration or passing) and a team still must be able to play excellent defense. The Golden State Warriors are not dominating solely because of their great outside shooting; if all they did was run and shoot three pointers then they would be the Mike D'Antoni Phoenix Suns, not a squad threatening to win over 70 regular season games and claim back to back championships. The key strategic concept to understand about three point shooting is that it involves more variance than post up play; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime was going to score in the paint and command double teams night after night, with little variation, but even the best three point shooter is going to have some awful nights beyond the arc: this season, Stephen Curry has shot .273 or worse from three point range eight times this season, which works out to once out of every six games. When the three pointers are not falling, a player and his team must be able to rely on dribble penetration/passing to score and they must play sound defense.

The style of play featured in the All-Star Game is not aesthetically pleasing nor is it winning basketball. It is possible to play hard, play the right way and still be entertaining: Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and their peers did this in the 1980s. Those All-Star Games were fun to watch and featured highlight reel plays but there was at least some defensive resistance.

I reject the idea that the current All-Star are trying to avoid injury and save themselves for the playoff push. This was about wanting to look cool and not wanting to put your reputation on the line by playing hard against a great player and either missing a shot or having a shot made against you despite your best effort--and it was the opposite of the kind of thinking that helped these players become All-Stars in the first place. I asked Erving about this mentality years several years ago and his response should be posted in both locker rooms prior to every All-Star Game, if not every game period:

Today's game, some of these All-Star Games, players have figured out a way to allow guys to dunk the ball and not have it perceived as the guy dunking on somebody. When I was coming up, you rarely could dunk on people and people did not want to get dunked on, it was almost like being 'posterized' if somebody dunked on you. Guys tried their best not to let anybody dunk on them. Sometimes they would just grab you rather than let you dunk. That seems to be lost somewhere in what I see with a lot of the high wire act performances. It is almost like, 'I'm going to let the guy dunk. And I'm going to get far enough out of the picture so nobody is perceiving this as me being dunked on or being posterized.' I don't understand the mentality of just letting a guy go in there and throw it down and applauding it, if he's wearing a different colored uniform. It's just playing to the crowd but I think that the crowd would respect and appreciate a play being made when somebody is trying to contest it. I think it makes for a great photo-op and a great poster if somebody is there. I remember being in Madison Square Garden and going up for a dunk and Lonnie Shelton was there and my knees were up on his shoulders. He was trying to draw a charge, I guess. Looking at that shot, when somebody is there, it is poetry in motion. Just throwing the ball up and going through the motions, I guess guys don't want to get hurt. I like watching the dunk contests--but I don't like a game to turn into a dunk contest with no defense. That does nothing for me. 

The best part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Game happened in the final minute when the Western Conference displayed some pride and did not just part the lane to let Paul George break Wilt Chamberlain's single-game All-Star scoring record of 42 points, a mark that has stood since 1962. It is great to see that George has fully recovered from the devastating broken leg that could have ended his career but it would have been a disservice for him to wipe out Chamberlain's record by hitting a bunch of uncontested shots.

LeBron James, who should be the best player in the league (a mantle he has ceded to Stephen Curry) and who should set an example of competitiveness for his peers, made wild, low percentage passes and attempted to throw a lob to himself off of the shot clock. He finished with 13 points, which was just enough to eclipse Bryant by one point for the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (291 points); little mention was made of this during the telecast and no mention was made of the fact that Erving still holds the ABA-NBA record with 321 points.

Perhaps the one positive thing about the recent spate of All-Star Games featuring subpar defense is that such performances expose the falsehood that NBA teams do not play defense during the regular season; clearly, if that were the case then the regular season scoring totals and shooting percentages would be much higher.

There is no doubt that the league has many very talented athletes who also possess elite basketball skills; it is a shame that the best players of this era do not take more pride in excelling at both ends of the court and at challenging themselves by playing hard against their peers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:51 PM