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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Happy 70th Birthday, Julius Erving!

It is hard to believe that my favorite basketball player of all-time and childhood hero Julius Erving celebrated his 70th birthday today. His combination of skill, grace, competitive greatness, and class are rare, if not unique.

I have already written many articles totaling tens of thousands of words about Erving (there is a whole section in 20 Second Timeout's right hand sidebar containing links to those articles); I have probably written more about Erving than anyone other than the beat writers who covered him for 11 years in Philadelphia.

So, what is something new or different that I can say about Erving on this milestone birthday?

One thing came to mind yesterday as I watched Zion Williamson, who has started his rookie season in sensational fashion; ESPN showed several graphics noting that in a variety of categories Williamson is putting up scoring numbers (in terms of most 20 point games and most 30 point games in his first 10 games as a professional) that have not been seen since the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan. I know that ESPN and most other major media outlets ignore ABA numbers, so I wondered how many 20 point games and 30 point games Erving had in the first 10 games of his rookie season, and these are Erving's 1971-72 scoring numbers as listed at BasketballRefererence.com: 21, 20, 17, 26, 31, 35, 21, 30, 19, 17.

That adds up to 23.7 ppg, with seven 20 point games (including three 30 point games). Erving's early rookie numbers are right up there with the numbers that ESPN listed for Jordan (27.3 ppg, eight 20 point games, three 30 point games), O'Neal (23.8 ppg, seven 20 point games, two 30 point games), and Williamson (22.1 ppg, eight 20 point games, two 30 point games). Individual rebound totals, individual assist totals, and field goal percentage numbers are not available at BasketballReference.com for those games, but Erving averaged 15.7 rpg, and 4.0 apg while shooting .498 from the field as a rookie, so one can reasonably assume that his numbers in those categories in his first 10 games were very good. Erving almost certainly outrebounded Williamson (probably doubling Williamson's numbers). Erving's Virginia Squires went 7-3 during those games, and Erving eventually led the Squires to the Eastern Division Finals while averaging 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg, and 6.5 apg during the playoffs (those are not typos).

Erving posted remarkable numbers throughout his career, and he did so in spectacular fashion, using his huge hands, tremendous leaping ability, and fantastic body control to literally and figuratively take the game of basketball to new heights.

Not only are Erving's numbers underrated--if not completely ignored--but Erving's status as a great winner is not accorded proper emphasis. Erving's teams reached at least the Conference Finals (called the Division Finals early in his career) 10 times during his 16 year career, winning six times. Erving won three championships, and he was the Playoff MVP during two of those three championship runs (he made the All-NBA First Team and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting as a 33 year old 12 veteran during his last championship season). Three of the six times that Erving's teams did not reach at least the Conference Finals happened in his final four years, when he was between 34 and 37 years old; for the vast majority of Erving's career, he led his teams to the "Final Four" on a nearly annual basis.

Erving's teams made the playoffs and did not have a losing record in each of his 16 seasons, an accomplishment unmatched in any of the major North American team sports at the time that Erving retired in 1987. In five of his first six NBA seasons, Erving's Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs by that season's championship team, led by a Hall of Fame center (the 76ers featured Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins at center during that era, a period in basketball history when it was almost impossible to win a title without a top flight big man).

It turns my stomach when anyone suggests that Erving was more flash than substance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Erving had both flash and substance: his teams won often, and won big, while Erving established himself as arguably the most exciting player of all-time (that is a subjective title, and he is my choice; other people may choose differently).

Happy Birthday, Dr. J! Thank you so much for the memories, and may you enjoy many, many more years!

Selected Articles About Julius Erving

Happy 60th Birthday, Dr. J! (2010)

Julius Erving's Best Scoring Streaks/Most Productive Scoring Months (2015)

Julius Erving's Legend Resonates Nearly 30 Years After He Retired (2016)

Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA (2017)

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Shane Battier on Guarding Kobe Bryant: "The Absolute Pinnacle of Challenge in my Profession"

Ben Cohen's February 10, 2020 Wall Street Journal article titled "He Didn't Know Kobe. But He Did" (subscription required) details Shane Battier's experiences playing against Kobe Bryant. Battier's approach to guarding Bryant became a hot topic for discussion after Michael Lewis wrote about this in the New York Times in February 2009, and I wrote several articles about this subject as well; links to some of those articles are provided below.

Battier always spoke intelligently and realistically about his matchups with Bryant, and this is true of his conversation with Cohen. Battier told Cohen that Bryant was the most difficult player for him to guard, and the one player he never quite figured out: "He was the only guy. What Kobe represents is the absolute pinnacle of challenge in my profession. He made me feel the most alive I ever did on the basketball court. I knew I had to be at my absolute best. If I wasn't, I was in serious trouble. Even when I was, I was in serious trouble."

Battier enjoyed not only the physical challenge of matching up with Bryant, but also the psychological game within the game. "I always prided myself as a guy who could get in the mind of another player," Battier said, and he added that his best psychological duels were those versus Bryant: "Nothing in my life has even come close to replicating that."

Battier first faced Bryant in 2002, during Battier's rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Bryant outscored Battier 56-6--and Bryant did not play in the fourth quarter! Bryant shot 21-34 from the field and did not commit a turnover in 34 minutes of action. Battier said, "Everyone remembers his 81 point game. There's no question he would've scored 80 points if he'd played the fourth quarter."

Battier declared that the best defensive game of his career was Houston's 104-92 win over the L.A. Lakers on March 23, 2008. That victory extended Houston's winning streak to 22 games, a streak that ended when they lost their next game by 20 points to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. Bryant scored 24 points in 47 minutes, but he shot just 11-33 from the field. Battier has no illusions about being able to stop Bryant, but Battier took pride in making things as difficult as possible for Bryant, and in trying to encourage Bryant to settle for the shot that Battier considered to be Bryant's weakest (weakest being a relative term): the long two point jumper off the dribble moving to the left.

Battier regrets that he and Bryant never shared time together off of the court to discuss their matchups: "The physical battles were what they were, but there are very few people who could understand the psychological battles. I don't think I could have that conversation with anybody else in the world."

A Partial List of 20 Second Timeout Articles About Kobe Bryant and Shane Battier:

1)  Shane Battier Talks About Kobe, LeBron--and Chess (January 14, 2009):

I interviewed Battier one on one in Cleveland after Battier's Rockets lost 99-90 to LeBron James' Cavaliers. Among other subjects, Battier explained the difference between guarding Bryant and guarding James:
In transition, you really have to find Kobe (on the perimeter). LeBron has improved his three point shooting but with Kobe you really have to start looking for him once he crosses halfcourt. But with LeBron, you better know where he is when he crosses the other free throw line because if he has a step and he is going full bore he is tough to stop in transition.
2) Kobe's Complete Skill Set 4, Houston's "Advanced Stats" 0 (April 4, 2009):

Daryl Morey insisted that LeBron James is the NBA's best player, and is unguardable, but the results from that season showed otherwise: 
Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets this season while averaging 28.3 ppg, 5.0 apg and 4.0 rpg; he shot .530 from the field and .533 from three point range but only .680 on free throws, so perhaps the Rockets have superior free throw defense--they sure did not stop him anywhere else (James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting and .250 three point shooting as his Cavs split two games versus the Rockets).

3) "He Can't Guard Me": Bryant Says It and Bryant Proves It (May 7, 2009):

Bryant did not rest on his regular season laurels, but he went straight at Battier during the 2009 playoffs:
Kobe Bryant has apparently heard more than enough about Shane Battier's defensive prowess; Battier played good defense against Bryant in Houston's game one win over the Lakers and Bryant still scored 32 points with a solid .452 field goal percentage. In game two, Bryant's actions and words both spoke loudly as he poured in 40 points on 16-27 (.593) field goal shooting in a 111-98 Lakers victory; on several occasions, Bryant loudly proclaimed, "He can't guard me," eventually receiving a technical foul for taunting. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Bryant became just the fifth player in NBA history to have at least one 40 point game in four straight postseasons; Michael Jordan had eight year (1985-92) and four year (1994-97) streaks, while George Mikan (1948-51), Elgin Baylor (1959-62) and Allen Iverson (1999-02) each had four year streaks.
4) Energetic Lakers Shut Down Rockets in Game Seven (May 18, 2009):

The Rockets did not shut Bryant down during the 2009 regular season, and they did not shut him down during the 2009 playoffs, either: 
In my series preview I wrote, "This series will be an interesting litmus test for the theory that Houston can use 'advanced basketball statistics' to come up with an effective game plan to slow down Bryant; the evidence from this season emphatically suggests that this is not the case: the Lakers won all four games as Bryant averaged 28.3 ppg while shooting .530 from the field and .533 from three point range." While Bryant did not match his exceptional regular season production versus Houston, during this series he still averaged 27.4 ppg on .453 field goal shooting and .344 three point shooting. Bryant averaged just 1.6 turnovers per game in the series despite being guarded by All-Defensive Team members Artest and Shane Battier and despite being almost constantly double and triple teamed; Bryant had no turnovers in two of the games and his series-high four turnovers took place in the Lakers' 118-78 game five rout. Bryant averaged 26.8 ppg and 2.6 tpg in the regular season while shooting .467 from the field and .351 from three point range, so there is an 11 game sample size (four regular season games versus Houston plus this playoff series) that suggests that even with two All-Defensive Team members at their disposal the Rockets' "stat gurus" have not been able to prove--on the court, where it counts, as opposed to in newspaper articles--that their "advanced metrics" give them any kind of real advantage versus Bryant. In fact, after the Rockets seized homecourt advantage with a game one win and could have taken control of the series with a game two victory Bryant bounced back with 40 points on 16-27 field goal shooting, a clutch performance in a must-win game for the Lakers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM


Monday, February 17, 2020

"Forever Mamba" Pays Tribute to Kobe Bryant

"Forever Mamba," a special tribute magazine for Kobe Bryant published by Lindy's, is available in stores now, and can also be ordered online from the Lindy's website: Lindy's Special Editions

Roland Lazenby, editor of Lindy's annual pro basketball preview magazine and author of numerous books--including Michael Jordan: The Life, Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, and Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant--edited "Forever Mamba." Lazenby also contributed three feature stories: "Kobe Bryant: Forever Mamba," "Fathers & Daughters," and "Heartbreak."

I wrote a feature titled "Kobe's Amazing Streaks and Big Games: 24 Indelible Memories From 20 Incomparable Years," and--though not mentioned in the masthead--I also selected the quotations for the "Outpouring of Grief for Kobe" feature (except for the quote from Kobe's widow Vanessa, which Vanessa released as a public statement after I had made my selections).

Michael Bradley wrote "Aces to Lakers."

Mike McGraw wrote "Air Balls and the Rise of No. 8," "The Three-Peat," "Most Valuable," and "Return to Glory."

Eric Pincus wrote "The Battle," and "The Moment."

Here is a picture of the cover:

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:24 PM


Kawhi Leonard Leads Team LeBron to 157-155 Win over Team Giannis as New Format Results in Exciting Fourth Quarter Competition

After three quarters, it seemed that the new NBA All-Star Game format had not inspired many players from either team to even pretend to play at a fraction of their full capabilities. Fortunately, the fourth quarter--a race to 157 points based on adding 24 points (in honor of Kobe Bryant) to the 133-124 lead enjoyed by Team Giannis over Team LeBron at the end of the third quarter--featured high level play as both teams looked fully engaged: Team Giannis' Kyle Lowry seemed to try to take a charge on every defensive possession, players from both teams contested almost every shot, and the level of physicality ramped up to top notch regular season levels, if not even first round playoff levels.

It is mystifying that most NBA players seem to need external motivation to play their best in the All-Star Game, but with a substantial portion of the weekend's festivities dedicated to the memory of Bryant--including naming the All-Star MVP award for him--it would have been a travesty for the players to just sleepwalk through the entire proceedings. Kawhi Leonard is a pioneer of the less than commendable load management scourge, but at least he always plays hard when he is on the court. Leonard scored a game-high 30 points on 11-18 field goal shooting (including 8-14 from three point range), grabbed seven rebounds, dished for four assists, and received the first Kobe Bryant All-Star Game MVP Award as his Team LeBron won, 157-155.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul always play hard, but it took a while for their colleagues to join the party. After the game, Paul said, "I think the best way we could honor Kobe, Gigi and everyone involved was to play like we played, you know what I mean? Me and Russ [Westbrook] kept talking about it. That's one thing about Kobe: Whenever he was on our team in the All-Star Game, there wasn't none of that cool stuff. There wasn't none of that. It was, like, as long as they throw the ball up, let's get to it."

Paul scored a team-high nine fourth quarter points (all on three pointers) for Team LeBron. Earlier in the game, Paul caught a lob from Westbrook and threw down a two-handed dunk, his first dunk in an NBA game since 2015. Paul finished with 23 points and six assists. Westbrook had a quiet game statistically (six points on 2-10 field goal shooting, plus three rebounds and three assists), but his energy helped Team LeBron to keep the game close during the first three quarters (Westbrook had a +1 plus/minus number despite not being on the court during Team LeBron's fourth quarter comeback, which means that during the majority of the game Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis by one when Westbook played even though Team Giannis outscored Team LeBron overall during that portion of the game).

LeBron James finished with 23 points, six assists, and five rebounds, but he shot just 1-7 from the field in the fourth quarter.

Antetokounmpo led his squad with 25 points and 11 rebounds, and he added four assists, but he shot 0-2 from the field in the fourth quarter--though he did play strong defense. Joel Embiid finished with with 22 points and 10 rebounds, leading both teams in both categories in the final quarter with 10 points and five rebounds.

It was very interesting that with the money (for local Chicago charities) on the line, Team Giannis repeatedly ran their fourth quarter offense through whoever James Harden was guarding. Harden can be a stout post defender when he feels like it, and he is more active and engaged playing post defense than playing perimeter defense, so Team LeBron--with top defenders like James, Leonard, Paul, and Anthony Davis on the court to help out--survived the Harden targeting.

The new format is not perfect--the first three quarters were hard to watch for anyone who enjoys basketball competition more than empty, uncontested showmanship--but the idea of playing for charity is great and the fourth quarter was a superb example of NBA basketball at its finest: elite athletes giving full effort at both ends of the court. I wish that the regular game format combined with the traditional East versus West rivalry would be sufficient to inspire high level basketball competition, but because we have seen on multiple occasions a significant decline in the game's competitiveness (see the game recaps below for recent examples of this), it made sense for the NBA to institute changes to motivate the players to compete at a higher level.

Recent NBA All-Star Game Recaps:

Kevin Durant Wins his Second All-Star MVP as Team LeBron Overcomes 20 Point Deficit to Defeat Team Giannis, 178-164 (2019)

"The All-Star Game sunk to such depths a few years ago that there were even whispers that it might be discontinued. Instead, the league changed the format from East versus West to a format in which the top two vote-getters conduct a draft consisting of a pool of other All-Stars selected by fans, coaches and media members. LeBron James faced off against Giannis Antetokounmpo in this year's All-Star draft. Popular consensus was that James, whose draft strategy seemed to be focused on acquiring every major player who will be a free agent soon, got the better of Antetokounmpo--but it did not look like that initially, as Team Giannis led 53-37 after the first quarter and 95-82 at halftime. Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 38 points on 17-23 field goal shooting, including 10 dunks. He also had 11 rebounds and five assists. He set the tone in the first quarter with 16 points. Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee teammate/All-Star teammate Khris Middleton added 20 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, including 6-10 from three point range. Middleton scored 12 first quarter points.

To coin--or repeat--a phrase, it seemed like Team LeBron was in "chill mode" during the first half, but in the second half they exerted at least some defensive effort and they rained down a barrage of three pointers. Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis 96-69 in the second half while shooting 22-49 from three point range. The teams combined to attempt 167 three pointers during the game, compared to 108 two pointers attempted.

Kevin Durant earned MVP honors by scoring 31 points on 10-15 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from three point range) while also contributing seven rebounds. He had 11 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Durant's Golden State teammate Klay Thompson finished second on Team LeBron with 20 points on 7-16 field goal shooting (6-12 from three point range) and he had eight rebounds and four assists as well."

LeBron James Earns Third All-Star Game MVP as Team LeBron Outlasts Team Stephen, 148-145 (2018):

"LeBron James scored a game-high 29 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high tying 10 rebounds and dished eight assists as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in the first year of the NBA's new All-Star selection format; instead of the traditional matchup featuring the Eastern Conference facing the Western Conference, a team of All-Stars picked by LeBron James faced a team of All-Stars picked by Stephen Curry. The NBA tweaked the All-Star Game in the wake of several subpar All-Star Games, culminating in last year's farce.

Before the 2018 All-Star Game, James already held the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (314 points) and yesterday he surpassed Julius Erving (321 points) to set the record for most points scored in ABA and NBA All-Star Games combined. Bob Pettit (1956, 58, 59, 62) and Kobe Bryant (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011) share the record with four All-Star Game MVPs each, while James joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as three-time winners; James previously earned the All-Star Game MVP in 2006 and 2008."

The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce (2017):

"The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark"

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:50 AM