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Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Basketball Hall of Fame Welcomes A Diverse Class of 12 Inductees

The 2019 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class includes the first black player drafted by an NBA team (Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics), an all-black team that became the first squad to win three straight collegiate national championships (Tennessee A&I, 1957-59), the New York Knicks' first superstar (Carl Braun), the pioneering women's team from Wayland Baptist, two of the greatest defensive players in pro basketball history (Bobby Jones and Sidney Moncrief), the face of the Warriors' franchise for six decades (Al Attles), two prominent NBA All-Stars from the 1970s/1980s (Paul Westphal and Jack Sikma), NBA championship-winning coach Bill Fitch, one of the first European players to make a big impact in the NBA (Vlade Divac) and one of the WNBA's first stars (Teresa Weatherspoon).

Divac gave the first speech during Friday night's induction ceremony. I was struck by the fact that when he first arrived in the United States he did not speak a word of English, but now he gave a wonderful Hall of Fame acceptance speech in that language. Think about that for a moment. Could you move to Serbia in your 20s, qualify for the Hall of Fame in some endeavor and then give your acceptance speech in Serbian? Divac declared, "To me, the game of basketball has always been about love." He also said, "You have to give in order to receive...Basketball is the opposite of selfishness. Basketball is solely about giving and sharing and caring for one another."

Jack Sikma is one of the few players who has a move named after him. Sikma patented the inside pivot move that is now referred to by his name. He had tremendous footwork and smarts. Before the ceremony, Bill Walton said, "He was a beautiful player" and a "brilliant analyst as to what to do (and) when (to do it)." In the final three seasons of his career, Sikma--who up to that point had made seven three point field goals in the nine years since the league had added the three point arc to the court--shot 203-618 (.328) on three pointers. His coach, Milwaukee's Del Harris, was two decades ahead of his time in terms of spacing the court and having his center shoot from long distance--and Sikma was both talented enough and smart enough to make that late-career addition to his skill set.

Braun, who received the honor posthumously, was known for his two handed set shot that was unorthodox even during his own era. The highlight reel showed that he had many other shots in his repertoire as well, including a running one hander. Braun set the NBA's single game scoring record of 47 points. His daughter Susan accepted the award on his behalf and stated that her father played for the love of the game, and that she can picture him now in heaven with his old teammates taking a brief break to watch the ceremony before going right back to playing the game he loved.

I grew up rooting for Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. A major contributor to those great teams was
Bobby Jones, who was efficient offensively and tenacious defensively. Jones had asked his Denver Nuggets teammate David Thompson and his former 76ers coach Billy Cunningham to present him but Thompson is ill and Cunningham was unable to attend as a result of Hurricane Dorian. In their places, Jones tapped Erving and Charles Barkley. Jones mentioned that he is happy that the Hall is rewarding defense and he said that he would not have had the career he did without the teachings of his college coach, Dean Smith. Jones thanked all of his teammates and he even thanked the referees, which is likely a first at a Hall of Fame ceremony. I interviewed Jones 14 years ago at the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver and found him to be every bit as gracious, humble and soft-spoken in person as he has always appeared to be.

Fitch was not able to attend the ceremony but he gave his speech via a pre-recorded video. His name may not be familiar to younger fans, but he lifted the Cleveland Cavaliers from first year expansion team to three straight playoff appearances, then he coached the Boston Celtics to a title in his second year with the team and then he led Houston to the NBA Finals in his third year with that team. Later he led the Nets and then the Clippers to the playoffs in an era when both teams were perennial laughingstocks. He ranks 10th in NBA history with 944 regular season wins.

The accomplishments of Tennessee A&I and their coach John McClendon (who the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honored as a contributor in 1979 and as a coach in 2016) are remarkable: they won three straight national titles--they are the first basketball team to win back to back national titles in any collegiate division--and they did so while overcoming the blatant racism of the day. They also played a style featuring pressure defense and fast-breaking offense that was far ahead of its time. Dick Barnett, the team's star who later became an NBA All-Star and a two-time NBA champion, narrated the video that placed the team's accomplishments in the historical context of an era that included the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the saga of Rosa Parks and the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Barnett began the video by declaring that Coach McClendon "sounded the trumpet that would never call retreat."

Barnett's speech was powerful and gripping on a sweeping historical scale. Teresa Weatherspoon's speech was powerful and captivating in a more personal manner. If you have not seen her speech yet, stop reading for a moment and watch it now: Teresa Weatherspoon's 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame Speech.

Weatherspoon began by noting that there was "nothing rolling for me" (i.e., she was not using the teleprompter). She spoke of the importance of the history of the game and she became overcome by emotion several times, including when she thanked God for knowing her name and for making it such that her name is remembered. She also was deeply moved when she thanked each of her older brothers and sisters for watching over her while she watched and learned from them. Weatherspoon concluded by telling a story about three frogs trapped in a deep barrel of hot water. The frogs jumped and jumped trying to get out, while the critics outside the barrel told them to stop jumping and accept that there was no way out. First one frog gave up and died, and then a second frog gave up and died. The third frog never gave up and he eventually escaped. What was his secret? He was deaf! Weatherspoon said that she has always been "deaf" to the critics and naysayers who tried to put limits on what she could accomplish. What a wonderful message! I can definitely picture showing this speech to my daughter Rachel when she is a little older.

Younger fans who may be dimly aware of Al Attles as a presence around the Golden State Warriors probably have no idea that he was a player, a championship-winning coach and an executive during his six decades (!) with the franchise. Attles was not big even during his playing days but he was known as the "Destroyer" and everyone around the league knew not to mess with him.

When I was a kid, there was a time that Sidney Moncrief was arguably the second best guard in the league behind only Magic Johnson. Moncrief's Milwaukee Bucks could never get past Boston and Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals but he was a great player who played on some great teams. Injuries curtailed his prime and shortened his career but when he was healthy and at his peak he wreaked havoc at both ends of the court. Moncrief said, "The game taught me how to prepare for opportunities, how to execute strategies, how to compete unconditionally, and how to adjust when you experience setbacks."

Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted by an NBA team, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first black player to sign an NBA contract and Earl Lloyd was the first black player to play in an NBA game. Lloyd was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003 and Clifton was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.

Julius Erving joined Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Tommy Heinsohn, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Ray Allen and Mannie Jackson as presenters for Chuck Cooper. As noted above, Erving (along with Charles Barkley) also presented Bobby Jones, so this ceremony marked the 14th and 15th times that Erving has been a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter. It was awesome to see such an array of talent from across the generations sharing the stage, but also poignant to look at how the aging process eventually takes its toll even on our sporting heroes.

In addition to Weatherspoon's powerful and inspirational speech, I was most touched by the tributes to Tennessee A&I and Chuck Cooper. I recall the poignant words of Earl Lloyd near the conclusion of the must-see documentary "Black Magic": "Black folks are the most forgiving and nicest people on this Earth. I said, 'What could we have possibly done to deserve the kind of treatment we are getting?' It's a tough question to answer truthfully. One person said to me, 'Well, the Lord will test you.' I said, 'I understand that but 200 years is a long time to be tested. I wish somebody would tell me if I passed or flunked this test.'"

The ceremony closed with a speech by Paul Westphal, who combined a nice mixture of humor with some very plaintive messages about thanking those who have helped you before it is too late to do so. He wondered aloud if the recently deceased John Havlicek and John MacLeod knew how much they had meant to him. Westphal called Havlicek the "best mentor a rookie could ever have." MacLeod was Westphal's coach in Phoenix when Westphal blossomed into a perennial All-Star/All-NBA player.


The diversity of the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame class is wonderful but for those of us who tend to focus more on the NBA one wonders why certain players, coaches and teams have been honored while others have not been recognized. Some players wait decades before they are inducted, other players who seem to be deserving have yet to be inducted, and then other players are inducted quickly despite not seeming to be inherently more qualified than those who suffered long waits and those who have not been inducted at all.

There are not easy or obvious answers to these questions. A little over a decade ago, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern described the Hall of Fame selection process as "absolutely unacceptable" and "troublesome." For many years, I loudly and repeatedly chastised the Hall of Fame for ignoring players and coaches who spent the bulk of their careers and/or their best seasons in the ABA.That particular situation did not improve until after Jerry Colangelo became the Hall of Fame Chairman. Suddenly, doors that had been closed to the ABA for decades opened up and in rapid succession the Hall of Fame welcomed ABA stalwarts  Artis Gilmore (2011), Mel Daniels (2012), Roger Brown (2013), Bobby "Slick" Leonard (2014), Louie Dampier (2015), Spencer Haywood (2015), Zelmo Beaty (2016) and George McGinnis (2017).

The ABA problem was perhaps simpler to address because it was obvious that a whole group of worthy candidates was being ignored specifically because of their ABA connections. The most glaring omissions have now been rectified and it is further heartening to see a guy like Bobby Jones--a defensive-minded player who began his career in the ABA--get recognized as well.

It is not so simple to figure out why particular individuals have not been inducted decades after their accomplished careers ended. There is not a set of objective criteria signifying what a Hall of Famer is, and the longer that someone is neglected the easier it is to keep neglecting that person in favor of more recently retired players whose accomplishments are better known.

I enjoyed watching the 2019 Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony and I learned some things about various inductees that I did not know, but I also feel bad for players like Bob Dandridge who have seemingly been forgotten. Dandridge was a two-way player who performed a key role for two NBA championship teams (1971 Bucks, 1978 Bullets). Will Dandridge have to wait to be inducted posthumously like Braun was this year and like Roger Brown was in 2013?

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:01 PM


Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Team USA’s FIBA World Cup Struggles and the Myth of “Olympic Melo”

Team USA has a 2-0 record in first round FIBA World Cup play with one game to go, and has already qualified to advance to the second round regardless of the outcome of tomorrow's game versus Japan. Team USA beat the Czech Republic 88-67 in their first game, but Team USA hardly looked impressive against a team that is not a FIBA powerhouse. In their second game, Team USA narrowly escaped with a 93-92 overtime victory against Turkey, another squad that is not a top contender.

This may be the weakest squad to represent the United States in a major FIBA event since the United States first put professional players on Team USA in the 1992 Olympics. Why is Team USA struggling? Team USA lacks talent, chemistry and size.

Team USA does not have the best player in this event--that would be Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2019 NBA regular season MVP--or the second best player in the event, Serbia's Nikola Jokic, a member of the 2019 All-NBA First Team. One could debate whether or not the United States has the third best player in this event, but first one would have to stipulate who the United States' best player is, because that is not clear. Candidates include Donovan Mitchell, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Mitchell leads the team in mpg (27.1) and ranks second in scoring (12.5 ppg). Walker is second in mpg (25.1) and first in scoring (13.5 ppg). Tatum is third in mpg (24.3), fifth in scoring (10.5 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.5 rpg). Walker is the only current Team USA player who has made the All-NBA team even once (All-NBA Third Team in 2019).

One could argue that from players 1-12 Team USA has the best overall talent, but even that is debatable. In such conversations, it is easy to confuse athletic ability with basketball talent. Team USA's players might be able to run faster and/or jump higher on average than the players from other FIBA teams, but that does not necessarily mean that Team USA has better overall basketball talent.

Chemistry is often an issue for Team USA in FIBA events, because other countries have national teams that have played together in FIBA competition for many years, while Team USA's roster is usually put together at the last moment. Chemistry in this sense has nothing to do with players having a bad attitude, but rather refers to players not being used to playing with each other under FIBA rules and conditions. Here are just a few of the differences between the FIBA game and the NBA game: A FIBA game consists of four 10 minute quarters as opposed to four 12 minute quarters, goaltending/basket interference is allowed in FIBA play once the ball hits the rim, and the FIBA three point line is closer to the hoop. Some of these differences may not seem significant, but we have often seen Team USA struggle to adopt to one or more of these variations. Another difference is the quality and style of the officiating, which affects play at both ends of the court and can affect rotations based on foul trouble. You may recall that in the 2004 Olympics Tim Duncan, an all-time NBA great who is not a foul-prone player, was plagued by foul trouble.

Team USA has three big men: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee. Plumlee played five minutes versus the Czech Republic and did not play at all versus Turkey. Lopez is averaging 3.0 ppg in 9.0 mpg. Turner is fifth on the team in mpg (22.2) and leads Team USA in rebounding (8.0 rpg) but he is scoring just 7.5 ppg while shooting .357 from the field. Turner's rebounding and shot blocking/rim protection are important but he is barely playing half of the time, and the rest of the time Team USA is either going small or else utilizing a big man who is not particularly effective in FIBA play.

Due to the above issues regarding talent, chemistry and size, it will not be shocking if Team USA loses at least one game or even if Team USA fails to win the gold medal. This is not a dominant FIBA team. This is a team that, if it plays well and maximizes its potential, is capable of winning the gold medal, but this is a team that also might have to struggle to win a medal at all.

What about coaching? Gregg Popovich is an all-time great NBA coach but his FIBA resume is a bit thin, and not much to write home about. He was an assistant coach for two of the worst performances in Team USA's FIBA history: the 2002 FIBA World Championship (sixth place) and the 2004 Olympics (bronze medal). At the end of regulation of the Turkey game, Popovich went small, much like when he took out Tim Duncan near the end of game six of the 2013 NBA Finals. Taking out Duncan resulted in the Miami Heat getting an offensive rebound and Ray Allen hitting a three pointer that saved the series for the Heat; Ersan Ilyasova's offensive rebound/tip in with 12 seconds remaining in regulation put Turkey up 81-79 and Team USA would have lost had Tatum not hit two free throws after being fouled just before time expired.

Again, I am not saying that Team USA cannot win the gold medal, but I am saying that it will be difficult to win the gold medal and that they have to play better and smarter than they have played in the first two games.

As Team USA's tryouts were being held, Carmelo Anthony, who has washed out of the NBA, publicly expressed his interest in playing for Team USA, and Team USA publicly expressed their interest in not adding him to the roster. Would Team USA be better off with "Olympic Melo" leading the way?

No! "Olympic Melo" is a mythical creature. I am not sure when, why or how the myth began, but the myth is not supported by statistics, the eye test or any other meaningful player evaluation system. Consider Anthony's performance in the 2008 Olympics: he had the second lowest field goal percentage on the team (.422, including .382 in medal round play) and he was benched for the final eight minutes of the gold medal game. During medal round play, Team USA outscored the opposition by 25 points when Anthony was in the game; Team USA outscored the opposition by 52 points when Kobe Bryant was in the game, and they outscored the opposition by 50 points when LeBron James was in the game.

Anthony performed somewhat better in the 2012 Olympics, though his overall numbers were skewed by his stat-padding 37 point explosion versus Nigeria during pool play. Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting during the gold medal game, and throughout the tournament he was often on the bench when the score was close.

In the 2016 Olympics, Anthony scored seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting in the gold medal game. He also had seven rebounds, one of which came after he was reinserted late in a blowout win so that he could set the Team USA Olympic record for career rebounds; he has not been a dominant Olympic rebounder but he holds the U.S. record for most Olympic appearances (four) and most Olympic games played (31, seven more than anyone else), so it is not surprising that he set some career records.

This recitation of facts is not meant to bash Anthony or to diminish his accomplishments and his dedication to Team USA. Here is what I wrote about Anthony after the 2016 gold medal game: "I am not a huge fan of Anthony's game and I am not surprised that he again came up small in the biggest games but I must say that I was moved by how overcome with emotion he was in the moments right after the game. It is obvious that representing his country is very important to Anthony and I commend him for that, particularly since so many players over the years have turned down that opportunity; Anthony has answered that call four times and the flaws in his game do not diminish the dedication that he has demonstrated in support of America and of USA Basketball. Each player on the team committed himself to sacrifice for the greater good; this may not have been a Dream Team but it was an American team that represented America well and it was a pleasure to watch them play the right way in the gold medal game."

All of that being said, Anthony would not have been the answer for Team USA's 2019 challenges. This version of Team USA needs "Olympic Spencer Haywood." In 1968, the 19 year old Haywood led a depleted U.S. roster to the gold medal by setting numerous Olympic and/or Team USA records. As demonstrated above, Anthony was hardly an impact Olympic player during his prime--he rode the coattails of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd--and it is silly to expect a player who cannot crack the eight man rotation of an NBA playoff team to lead Team USA to a gold medal.

Anthony's former teammate Chauncey Billups recently provided the best explanation for why Anthony is not in the NBA now--and this also explains why Anthony would be a poor fit for Team USA: scoring 30 points in a game means too much to Anthony. Billups recalled that Anthony would be happy even after a loss if he scored 30 points, and he would not be as happy after a win if he did not score 30 points.

When your primary concern is scoring 30 points, and you can no longer score 30 points consistently or efficiently, you are no longer valuable to a basketball team. Vince Carter is playing into his 40s because he long ago accepted a reduced role not only without complaint but with enthusiasm. Anthony is wired differently; he has a right to think about himself, his game and his legacy however he wants, but teams also have a right to decide to not sign an aging, declining player who is in denial about his current capabilities.

What about Team USA? I expect Team USA to produce a mixture of flawed, unimpressive double digit wins against lesser teams and close calls against the upper echelon FIBA teams--and possibly even some close calls against lesser teams, as happened versus Turkey. In order to win the gold medal, Team USA needs to develop more chemistry/cohesion at both ends of the court, and someone needs to emerge as the go-to option down the stretch in close games. Those two tasks might sound divergent but they are not. Cohesion and chemistry keep things together for most of the game, but in a close contest you need to have a player who is so confident and so deadly that he must be double-teamed; that in turn opens up opportunities for players who are not good enough or not confident enough to create their own shots down the stretch. Against the better teams that also have skilled big men, Team USA will need at least 25 productive minutes from Turner.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:20 PM