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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

George Mumford and Julius Erving Discuss Mindfulness

I mentioned the House Call With Dr. J Podcast last October and it is worth emphasizing again how wonderful these episodes are. They cover a lot more than basketball and it is a shame that no episodes have been added to the archives in recent months; I hope that does not mean that the project has been shelved.

I recently listened to the George Mumford conversation--the podcasts are much more like a dialogue than an interview--and it was the highlight of my lunch break, a great way to feed my mind while I fed my body before completing the work day.

Mumford was Erving's roommate during their college days at the University of Massachusetts. They hit it off immediately and developed a lifelong friendship. Mumford, a year behind Erving in school, looked up to the young basketball star not only because of Erving's on court prowess but also because of Erving's demeanor when interacting with people regardless of their station in life.

As Mumford put it during the podcast, "No matter what you're doing, it's who you're being that is really important."

Mumford's basketball career ended prematurely due to injuries, and eventually Mumford transitioned from the painkillers that he took to deal with those injuries to harder substances. Mumford prevailed over his drug addiction and became a world-renowned expert on mindfulness; Phil Jackson brought Mumford in to work with both the Chicago Bulls and also later with the L.A. Lakers. Mumford has trained a host of world-class athletes from a variety of sports about how to be in the moment and calm their racing thoughts.

Mumford cites Erving as both an influence and an inspiration and he sees similarities in the mindsets of Erving and two of the most prominent basketball players with whom he has worked: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Erving and Mumford discussed the mindset that it takes to be successful. Erving described himself as a "square" who has "never smoked a joint" and sees no reason to do so now. He said that his focus on what he needed to do to get where he was trying to go enabled him to sidestep the temptations that lured others away from the path to success. Erving was careful to say that he was not judging Mumford or anyone else who succumbed to drug addiction. Mumford said that when he was at his lowest point he distanced himself from Erving because he did not want to bring around Erving the kinds of people with whom he was associating.

Mumford admired the dedication that Erving showed to perfect his craft, always working on a new move or a new shot. Erving noted that it has always irritated him when people emphasize his "natural talents" as opposed to acknowledging how hard he worked, adding that it took him his whole life to become a so-called overnight success (success being defined by when the general public knows about your skills, as opposed to when and how those skills were actually developed).

Mumford pointed out that many people say that they want to be like Erving or Jordan or Bryant but few people are willing to pay the necessary price in terms of work and sacrifice.

Regarding Jordan, Mumford was struck by his tremendous concentration level. He began working with Jordan during Jordan's first comeback and they focused on changing Jordan's leadership style now that he had so many teammates who had not been members of Chicago's first three championship teams.

As for Bryant, Mumford told him, "Kobe, the best way to score is not to try to score...there is a difference between willing yourself and forming the intention and then allowing it to happen."

Mumford listed several characteristics that Erving, Jordan and Bryant share, with two of the most important being a basic intelligence about life--not just sports--and a singular commitment to excellence. Mumford cited as an example the way that Bryant persevered through an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand by completely changing his shooting stroke and ultimately leading the Lakers to the 2010 championship. Mumford described what Bryant did as higher level thinking; if there is not a way, then you just figure out a way or make a way, something that most people cannot do. Mumford said that to do this you "Train the mind, connect it to the spirit."

Mumford mentioned three other traits that Erving, Jordan and Bryant have:

1) Positive energy
2) Social support
3) The ability to see stress as a challenge

When someone is on top of the world, it is easy to delude oneself into thinking that this was meant to be and had been smooth sailing but the reality is that it takes tremendous energy, support and persistence to achieve anything significant.

This podcast lasts less than 30 minutes and is well worth your time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 AM


Monday, February 11, 2019

James Harden's Travels Through the NBA Record Book

Back in the day, when someone traveled in one of my rec league games and the referees missed it, a friend of mine used to yell, "Ref, he took a bus!"--as in, the offender did not just slightly travel, but he took an extended journey so far beyond the confines of the traveling rule that Stevie Wonder could have made the call.

There is a backlash against the backlash against James Harden and it goes something like this: "Why is everyone hating James Harden's greatness? He makes stepback threes that no one else can make, he has a knack for drawing fouls and he has a combination of strength/quickness that enables him to get to the hoop and finish in traffic. No one else can score as prolifically as Harden, nor can anyone else score in the variety of ways that he scores."

I will stipulate that the court of basketball truth may take judicial notice of the following facts: Harden is capable of making difficult shots, Harden is both strong and quick, and Harden has a knack for finishing in traffic/drawing fouls.

All of that being stipulated for the record, I cannot speak for all of the so-called "haters" but I can state clearly and simply why I am not impressed by what Harden is doing this season: James Harden travels on a regular basis, and this is a major reason accounting for his ongoing travels up the charts in the NBA record books. There are other reasons to be skeptical of Harden's supposed greatness, but that is the biggest single one--at least for me. I would estimate that Harden is scoring an extra 8-10 ppg purely based on being permitted to blatantly and repeatedly travel. Those extra points are the difference between being the 28-30 ppg scorer that he has been in recent years, and the 35-40 ppg scoring machine that he has been in recent weeks.

Harden's traveling is not a subject for debate; just watch the tape, with the understanding that the traveling rule remains the same as it has always been: after a player stops dribbling, he must pass or shoot without taking more than a "1, 2" step. In other words, if you pick up your dribble in midstride then you can put one foot down and then put down the other foot (or come to a two-footed jump stop immediately after picking up your dribble) but before you take a third step the ball must be out of your hands via shot or pass.

P.J. Carlesimo recently did a segment for ESPN that lasted about 90 seconds and that showed several different examples of Harden taking three or more steps before draining a shot. Carlesimo commented that if he were coaching against Harden then he would be yelling at the officials all the time to enforce the traveling rule because there is no way to guard Harden if he is going to be allowed to blatantly and repeatedly violate the traveling rule.

There is no doubt that Harden is a talented scorer. There is no doubt that he makes some shots that are very difficult.

There is also no doubt that any above average NBA player is going to score a lot more points than usual if he is permitted to take extra steps.

The issue is compounded by the fact that Harden often pushes off first before he takes his three steps backward. In other words, he commits an offensive foul, then he travels, and then he scores. He often looks with disdain at his discarded defender before making the wide open shot. Forgive me for not being entertained by this nonsense.

I don't know how to guard Harden under the current set of circumstances but a couple thoughts come to mind, beyond the obvious "high hands" strategy that San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has advocated for a while:

(1) No soft fouls. If Harden pushes you and then travels, live with the outcome, because lunging at him and committing a soft foul just results in a potential four point play.

(2) Many hard fouls. Old-timers may recall that Dave Cowens was once whistled for what he deemed to be a questionable call, whereupon on an ensuing play he basically laid out an opposing player, turned to the ref and declared, "Now that's a (bleeping) foul!" That kind of blatant hard foul would almost certainly be considered a flagrant foul today but one possible answer to Harden's shenanigans is to put a non-essential player on him for a stretch of a few minutes and instruct that player that every time Harden does the foul/travel combo whack Harden's shooting hand as hard as you can. I don't believe that fouling a shooter's shooting hand would be deemed a flagrant foul, particularly if you look like you are going for the ball, and it would be interesting to see if Harden retained an appetite for violating the rules after receiving a steady diet of such fouls.

Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that there are ways to get someone to stop being foolish and to simply play the game without doing anything that is flagrant or dangerous. I think that it was Charles Barkley who once said that every time he played against Dennis Rodman he would elbow Rodman in the ribs the first time Rodman yanked his shorts or did some other offense that went undetected; the message was, "Do you want to play ball or do you want to do something else?" Rodman was much more successful against players like Alonzo Mourning who fell for the proverbial banana in the tailpipe then he was against players who neither tolerated shenanigans nor let shenanigans distract them. If I were coaching against Harden I would not complain to the referees and I would fine any of my players who got technical fouls for doing so; if this nonsense is going to be legislated out of existence then it is going to take place league-wide and not by lobbying individual officials. However, as a coach or player I would make sure that my team takes countermeasures against Harden, as described above.

As a competitor, one thing that I would not do is just accept that a player on the other team is allowed to get away with violating the rules.

If Harden can score 35-plus ppg within the confines of the rules, more power to him and I have never believed that it is appropriate to hard foul a guy just if he is beating you within the confines of the rules--but let's be honest and admit that is not what is happening with Harden. Harden has had some legitimately great moments and great games but the bulk of what he is doing would not be possible without the traveling violations.

As for the large number of free throws that Harden shoots, after watching him play a lot I have reached two conclusions: (1) He is awarded a lot of questionable calls and (2) he does have a knack for baiting unfocused defenders into fouling him. These are not mutually exclusive concepts; it is possible--and, in fact, true--to say both that Harden benefits from a favorable whistle and that Harden is very good at drawing fouls.

Saturday night's Oklahoma City-Houston game was a microcosm of the good, the bad and the ugly regarding Harden. The Rockets built a 68-42 first half lead as Harden scored on a variety of shots/moves, some of which were incredible but legal and others of which involved the push off/travel duo. Predictably, once the Rockets stopped making three pointers the Thunder came roaring back to win, 117-112. Most of the in game commentary focused on Harden--who scored 42 points on 11-28 field goal shooting--and Paul George, who scored 45 points on 12-22 field goal shooting. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook "merely" amassed his ninth straight triple double (21 points, game-high tying 12 rebounds, game-high 11 assists), tying the all-time triple double streak set by Wilt Chamberlain. Westbrook struggled with his shot and he had several sloppy turnovers but, as George noted after the game, Westbrook had his fingerprints on just about everything positive that the Thunder did as well.

Harden's poor shooting is justified by some because he shoots so many three pointers and free throws but the reality is that regardless of Harden's points per shot or true shooing percentage 17 Houston possessions ended in missed shots by Harden; that is a ton of empty possessions and that is a recipe for blowing a lead. Harden had a -9 plus/minus number, which means that the Rockets had the advantage when he sat and lost the lead while he played. George had a +16 plus/minus number, while Westbrook's plus/minus was +2. Westbrook's miscues played a role in Oklahoma City falling behind, but his rebounding, passing and defense--plus a few timely shots-- also played a role in the comeback.

The ebbs and flows of that game strongly suggest that no matter how much the league tilts calls in Harden's favor it will still be difficult for Houston to consistently beat good teams, which means that their 2019 postseason run will most likely end in a meltdown similar to the ones that punctuated each of Harden's previous Houston postseasons. Basketball purists who are not entertained by the Rockets and by Harden's shenanigans cannot wait for the madness to end.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM