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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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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Amazing Allen Iverson

On October 30, Allen Iverson officially retired as an NBA player. Iverson previously had a short-lived 2009 retirement before playing 28 games in the 2009-10 season but this retirement has an air of finality to it: he has not played in the league for three years and it is unlikely that there is much of a market for a 38 year old, 6-0 shooting guard even if Iverson decided that he did want to come back. I discussed Iverson's legacy right after his first retirement but it is worth reiterating--and updating--his incredible career numbers and his high ranking on the NBA/ABA regular season lists in several important categories, including fourth in mpg (41.1), sixth in ppg (26.7), ninth in spg (2.17), 12th in free throws made (6375) and 24th in points (24,368). Iverson also left a firm imprint on the NBA/ABA career playoff leaderboard, ranking second in ppg (29.7), third in mpg (45.1) and seventh in spg (2.07).

Allen Iverson is the most amazing athlete who I have seen in person--he is not the greatest athlete who I have seen or even just the greatest basketball player who I have seen but he is the most amazing athlete because of what he accomplished over a long period of time despite being just 6-0 tall (if that) and weighing less than 180 pounds. Iverson is a normal-sized man who could do abnormal things on a basketball court, things that few if any people his size could do.

One firsthand impression of Iverson particularly stands out; on December 15, 2001, I sat in the stands at Gund Arena and watched Iverson drop 40 points on 18-29 field goal shooting in 46 minutes as his Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 94-91. Iverson also had nine assists, six rebounds and three steals. He survived what I would call the "bump and run" defense of the rugged and savvy Andre Miller; despite being grabbed, held and pushed by the bigger and stronger Miller, Iverson raced around the court, scoring at will. Iverson played with that same relentless attitude--and endured a similar pounding--for 914 regular season games plus 71 playoff games. He led the league in mpg an astonishing seven times (trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, who topped the NBA in that category nine times) and he averaged at least 40 mpg in 11 of his 14 seasons. Iverson's durability and his insatiable competitive desire are two underrated aspects of his greatness.

The "stat gurus" will never like Iverson's game and many fans will always resent Iverson's style, appearance and attitude--but the man deserves to be respected for his toughness, his determination, and the way that he established himself as arguably the greatest 6-0 and under player in the history of professional basketball. Few "little" men have been the best player on a legitimate championship contender but in 2001 Iverson won the regular season MVP before carrying the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. Iverson averaged a series-high 35.6 ppg while playing a series-high 47.4 mpg in the 2001 NBA Finals but even his brilliant play could only net one victory for the 76ers--though it is worth emphasizing that this was one more victory than the rest of the playoff field combined achieved against a dominant L.A. Lakers squad led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, two superstars who are much bigger and stronger than Iverson.

So many people have said and written so many things about Iverson, so the man deserves the last word. Here is a portion of the retirement speech that he gave on October 30:

You know, I thought once this day came it would be basically a tragic day. I never imagined the day coming, but I knew it would come. I feel proud and happy to say that I’m happy with my decision and I feel great. I’m in a great mindset making a decision...

I always had the physical talent, I always had the physical ability, I could run with the best of them, I could jump with the best of them, but I just didn’t know the game. Earlier in my career, I didn’t take criticism the right way. But it was always constructive criticism coming from coach (Larry) Brown, it was always love that he had for me and I had to mature and understand that he was there, trying to [help me] become the player I ultimately ended up being. Once I took hold to everything he had to share with me, as far as the mental aspect of the game, that’s when it took me from here to here [raises hand] and took me to MVP status...

I gave everything I had to basketball and the passion is still there, the desire to play is just not. I just feel good that I’m happy with the decision I’m making. It was a great ride.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 PM

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Pistons are "Stuck" in Last Place

Joe Dumars is a Hall of Famer who won two NBA championships as a player and one championship as an executive; there is no doubt that he understands what it takes to win at the highest level, which makes his apparently undying belief in Rodney Stuckey all the more baffling: Dumars essentially got rid of three All-Stars (Chauncey Billups, Allen Iverson and Richard Hamilton) in order to hand the keys to the car to Stuckey, who has proceeded to drive the Pistons straight to the bottom of the standings. The Pistons missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and they are currently 1-8, sitting in last place in the Central Division and ranking ahead of only the 0-7 Washington Generals--I mean Washington Wizards--among the league's 30 teams.

If you click here for NBA betting at Top Bet you will see that the oddsmakers think that even the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic have a better chance to win the NBA championship than the Pistons--and Stuckey has played a major role in Detroit's pathetic record: he shot .282 from the field while starting in all eight losses and, probably not coincidentally, the Pistons finally cracked the win column when he sat out the ninth game of the season due to illness.

Only four NBA franchises have won at least three championships in the past 25 years: the Lakers, the Bulls, the Spurs and the Pistons--but the Pistons are not likely to add to that total as long as Stuckey is the team's second highest paid player and a key member of their rotation.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:30 AM

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dumars' Peculiar Fascination with Stuckey Stalled the Pistons

The fall of the Detroit Pistons--who at their peak won the 2004 NBA title and advanced to the 2005 NBA Finals--began with the departures of Coach Larry Brown and defensive stalwart Ben Wallace but accelerated dramatically when team President Joe Dumars inexplicably convinced himself that Rodney Stuckey was some kind of star in the making. Stuckey did not show much in his 2007-08 rookie season other than an inconsistent shooting stroke combined with suspect passing skills; Stuckey seemed equally ill-suited to start at shooting guard or point guard but Dumars--utilizing the same type of hallucinatory/delusional vision that imagined that Darko Milicic would be better than Carmelo Anthony--apparently saw a future in which Stuckey would transform into some combination of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Early in the 2008-09 season, Dumars traded 2004 Finals MVP Billups for perennial All-Star Allen Iverson with the idea of installing Stuckey as a starter and forcing either Iverson or Hamilton to come off of the bench, a role neither player had previously filled. Iverson became the convenient fall guy when the 2009 Pistons failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs but, as ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy later bluntly and correctly put it, "Last year, the Detroit situation with him (Iverson) was mishandled. You don't bring in a guy like that and then tell either Richard Hamilton or Allen Iverson they're coming off the bench. You start Iverson, you start Hamilton, you bring Stuckey off the bench--or you just buy Iverson out when you make the trade. But to ask either one of those guys to come of the bench, to me, doesn't make any sense."

One supposed advantage of trading Billups for Iverson was the possibility of letting Iverson go after one season and then using the resulting cap space to reload Detroit's roster with young talent. Dumars indeed parted ways with Iverson but he transformed the Billups/Iverson cap space into Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, two streak shooters who think that defense is what surrounds "de yard." Michael Curry struggled in his only season as Detroit's head coach--not helped at all by Dumars' Stuckey obsession--but things took a turn for the worse in 2009-10 when Dumars replaced Curry with John Kuester, who many media members had proclaimed to be the de facto "offensive coordinator" of Mike Brown's Cleveland Cavaliers.

Most mainstream media sports commentators understand as much about professional sports coaching as they do about the intricacies of particle physics: nothing at all (three quick examples: during the 1990s many media members loudly and repeatedly asserted that Bill Belichick could not coach his way out of a paper bag, much the same way that media members later belittled Mike Brown's coaching acumen; purported basketball expert Bill Simmons shamelessly critiqued Doc Rivers--who has forgotten more about NBA strategy than Simmons will ever know--before Rivers brilliantly led Simmons' beloved Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship; many NBA pundits declared that Flip Saunders' "liberation offense" would prove to be a breath of fresh air for the Pistons in the wake of Larry Brown's departure). Kuester was a solid NBA assistant coach but the idea that he was the mastermind behind Cleveland's success during Mike Brown's tenure never made sense and looks completely ridiculous in the wake of Kuester's disastrous run in Detroit; Curry's 2009 Pistons went 39-43 and lost in the first round of the playoffs but with Kuester at the helm the Pistons went 27-55 in 2010 and 30-52 in 2011. NBA coaches put in long hours and have a much more demanding job than most casual observers realize but as much as I respect NBA coaches in general and Kuester specifically it must be said that Kuester hardly authored many strategic masterpieces during his Detroit career. Kuester also seemed to be completely disconnected from the players he was supposed to be leading and motivating: he benched and then feuded with respected veteran Hamilton for no apparent reason, in the process alienating Hamilton and many of Hamilton's teammates.

The bottom line is that Dumars and the Pistons lost sight of the primary reasons that they had been successful--Larry Brown's coaching/Ben Wallace's toughness and defensive mindset--and that is why they have been experiencing diminishing returns ever since Brown and Wallace departed; it is a long, precipitous drop from Brown to Saunders to Curry to Kuester and it is an equally long, precipitous drop from Wallace to the various players who have attempted to fill the pivot for the Pistons the past few years. Brown rarely stays in one place for long, so maybe he would have left Detroit no matter what, but it certainly seems like Dumars should have made a greater effort to retain Brown's services. Perhaps in Wallace's case Dumars felt that he was following in Bill Walsh's footsteps--getting rid of a player one year too early instead of one year too late--but that philosophy only works if (1) you are correct about how much (or how little) a star player has left in the tank and (2) you find a way to adequately replace that star player.

Even if the losses of Brown and Wallace could not have been avoided or handled any better, Dumars' Stuckey obsession is just baffling. Stuckey has been a 30-plus mpg starter for three seasons now despite only excelling in one category: free throw shooting (he consistently shoots better than .800 and he shot a career-high .866 in 2010-11). Stuckey ranks in the middle of the pack--or worse--among starting point guards in rebounding, assists, steals, field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage (his rankings are not any better if he is instead classified as a shooting guard); he is a productive scorer for a point guard (15.5 ppg in 2010-11) but he is not an efficient or versatile scorer. Stuckey has displayed neither the ability to consistently run a team well from the point guard position nor the ability to be a top notch shooting guard; perhaps he could be a solid third or fourth guard for a playoff team but it seems doubtful that he will ever be a starter for a team that makes much noise in the postseason: he just does not have that kind of skill set, nor has he shown much improvement during his four year career (his per minute productivity in most key categories has not changed substantially since his rookie season, which means that what we have already seen from him is likely what we will see from him in the future).

Joe Dumars did a very good job transforming the Pistons into perennial contenders several years ago and he has already enjoyed more success than most NBA executives ever will but until he abandons his Captain Ahab-like obsession with chasing Stuckey's presumed future greatness the Pistons are most likely doomed to be a mediocre team at best.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 AM

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Allen Iverson Ends Short-Lived Retirement

"I know I can play and I'm going to prove that."--Allen Iverson, 12/3/09 press conference.

Allen Iverson ended perhaps the shortest retirement in sports history by scoring 11 points, dishing off six assists and grabbing five rebounds in his second coming as a Philadelphia 76er but the 76ers lost to the Denver Nuggets 93-83. Chauncey Billups led the Nuggets with 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, helping to overcome a sluggish 14 point, 5-21 shooting performance from Carmelo Anthony, who failed to score 20 points for the first time this season. Andre Iguodala topped the Sixers with 31 points but that was not nearly enough to overcome Denver's ability to draw fouls and make free throws. Billups made all 11 of his free throws as the Nuggets shot 24-26 from the free throw line, compared to just 8-9 free throw shooting by the Sixers.

Iverson's relatively modest statistics were actually pretty good for someone who has not played in an NBA game in a month and it is worth noting that he had the second best plus/minus number for the 76ers (-1, trailing only Iguodala's +1); in other words, the Nuggets did most of their damage when Iverson was not on the court. The Sixers built a 10 point lead in the first half, were up 44-41 at halftime and were ahead 65-61 when Iverson went to the bench with 37.7 seconds remaining in the third quarter. When Iverson returned at the 9:08 mark in the fourth quarter the Nuggets led 72-65 and the Sixers were not able to gain any ground the rest of the way.

The game's outcome is hardly surprising; the Sixers were 5-15 prior to Iverson's arrival and had lost nine straight games. In fact, the Sixers have yet to win more than 41 games in a season since jettisoning Iverson early in the 2006-07 campaign; with Iverson onboard, they won at least 43 games in five of the seven full seasons prior to that and posted a .561 winning percentage (equivalent to 46 wins in an 82 game season) during the lockout shortened 1999 season, Iverson's third year in the league.

The real story is not the result of one game but the tremendous battering that Iverson's image has taken in the past year or so: in the 2007-08 season, then-Nugget Iverson ranked first in the NBA in minutes (41.8 mpg), third in the NBA in scoring (26.4 ppg), eighth in the NBA in steals (2.0 spg) and ninth in the NBA in assists (7.1 apg) for a team that won 50 games in the tough Western Conference--but since that time he has been traded by Denver and essentially banished by Detroit before fleeing Memphis early this season after playing just three games. In the blink of an eye--and without suffering a serious injury or any tangible loss of his physical skills--Iverson went from being one of the most prolific players in the league to persona non grata, someone who even the most woeful teams in the league expressed no public interest in signing. Are we really supposed to believe that Iverson could not help the Nets, Knicks or some of the league's other cellar dwellers? A lot of teams are putting all of their eggs in the proverbial LeBron James basket and it will be really interesting to see how their fans react when James does not sign with any of those teams and their fans realize that they have been sold a bill of goods.

Supposedly, Iverson's unwillingness to come off of the bench scared away most of his potential suitors but--as Iverson mentioned in his recent interview with John Thompson--prior to Iverson's arrival in Detroit there had never been a question about whether or not Iverson should be a starter. Then the Pistons inexplicably decided that Rodney Stuckey simply has to be a starter, so they sent Iverson to the bench (Stuckey has started all 20 games for the Pistons this year and near the season's quarter pole the Pistons are on pace to post their worst record since 2000-01). Iverson told Thompson that he would be willing to come off of the bench if someone beat him out for the starting spot by outplaying him and if "I know in my heart that that player is better than me. I wouldn't have (a) problem if (a coach told me) 'This guy right here outplayed you. He's a better player than you. He's the starter'...Why would I have a problem with that? Just like guys got to accept when I start over them--but they know when they look in the mirror and ask themselves 'Are you better than Allen Iverson? Should you be starting over Allen Iverson?' They know the answer."

Any intelligent, informed basketball observer--for instance, Jeff Van Gundy--understands that the Pistons bungled the Iverson situation; I would go further and say that the Pistons actually damaged Iverson's reputation around the league (not that this was their intention or goal per se). Uninformed basketball observers--such as "stat guru" Dave Berri*--leaped at the opportunity to pile on to Iverson; last season had barely gotten underway and the Pistons had not yet re-signed Antonio McDyess (who was traded to Denver in the Iverson deal but then let go by the Nuggets) but Berri immediately declared that the Pistons were heading into a downward spiral that was entirely Iverson's fault. The Pistons did in fact have a subpar season but there were many factors involved, including a coaching change that did not work, injuries to key players, McDyess' absence for a month--and the bizarre way that the Pistons seemed to do everything possible to minimize Iverson's effectiveness, as opposed to playing an uptempo, wide open style that would have taken advantage of Iverson's ability to create open shots for himself and others; after all, Pistons President Joe Dumars publicly stated that he traded Billups and McDyess for Iverson precisely because Iverson could add a dimension to Detroit's offense that Billups did not provide. Why acquire Iverson and make that statement if you have no intention of taking advantage of Iverson's skill set strengths? Was Dumars' grand plan really simply to acquire salary cap space to spend on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva? Don't expect to see that Stuckey-Gordon-Villanueva "nucleus" in the NBA Finals any time soon.

Whether or not you like Iverson, he has earned respect because of his productivity and because of how hard he plays. The reason that Berri's articles about Iverson are so detestable and the reason that I respond so forcefully to them is that it seems like Berri--a nobody in his primary field, someone whose work assuredly will not stand the test of time--is trying to make a name for himself as an NBA "stat guru" at Iverson's expense, bamboozling the general public with mathematical gimmickry that the average person is not equipped to debunk; most people do not have much formal mathematical training, so they are reluctant to challenge an economist when he spouts off about what the "numbers" supposedly say, though intelligent people understand that Economics is Not a Science, Nor is Basketball Statistical Analysis and that, as I wrote earlier this year, "Basketball statistical analysts do not yet have all of the necessary data to completely 'model' the sport, nor do they fully understand how to use the data that they have."

Watch Iverson play for the rest of this season, look back at old footage of Iverson--like this nearly nine minute (!) compilation of dunks by the diminutive guard--consider Iverson's high rankings in pro basketball history in categories like scoring average, steals and minutes played and then decide for yourself whether my perspective or Berri's perspective best represents what you honestly think and feel about Iverson's place in basketball history: do you believe "no sensible person can deny that he is not only one of the greatest 'little men' (six feet and under) in pro basketball history but one of the greatest players of all-time, period" or do you believe "Iverson--across his entire career--has been slightly below average"?

*--One of the great mysteries of the universe (or least the basketball universe) is why ESPN's Henry Abbott has seemingly made it his personal mission to heavily promote Berri's half baked basketball ideology; even other "stat gurus" are extremely skeptical about Berri's methodologies, yet Abbott incessantly links to Berri as if Berri has discovered the Holy Grail of basketball analysis. ESPN employs its own "stat guru"--John Hollinger, who has sometimes crossed swords with Berri--and even though Abbott also links to Hollinger it seems like Abbott does so out of duty more than belief, whereas Abbott seems determined to lift Berri--a minor figure in his chosen field (Berri is an associate economics professor at that bastion of economic theory, Southern Utah University)--into prominence in the basketball world.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:16 AM

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Allen Iverson's Legacy

Like many NBA observers, I suspect that Allen Iverson's retirement will be short-lived but if it is really true that Iverson has played his final NBA game then today it is certainly most fitting to remember--and be thankful for--his outstanding career. Iverson has more than his share of "haters"--from the "stat gurus" who deem him to be overrated to older fans who don't like his tattoos and hip hop persona--but no sensible person can deny that he is not only one of the greatest "little men" (six feet and under) in pro basketball history but one of the greatest players of all-time, period.

Iverson not only won the 2001 regular season MVP--though I think that Shaquille O'Neal deserved the honor that year--but he received at least one MVP vote in eight of his 13 full seasons. Iverson won the 1997 Rookie of the Year award and two All-Star MVPs while making the All-Star team 10 years in a row (2000-09). Iverson earned seven All-NBA selections, including three First Team nods.

ESPN noted that Iverson is one of only three players in NBA history who averaged at least 25 ppg, five apg and two spg--the others are Michael Jordan and Jerry West; of course, steals have only been officially recorded since 1973-74 in the NBA, so West's "career" average only includes 81 steals in 31 games in his final season, which means that in the past 35 years the only two players to average 25-5-2 during full length careers are Jordan and Iverson.

Numbers rarely tell the whole story but check out Iverson's NBA/ABA ranks in some key categories: fourth in career mpg (41.4), sixth in career scoring average (27.0 ppg), sixth in career spg (2.2), 11th in career free throws made (6277) and 22nd in career points (24,020)--and Iverson stepped up his game in the postseason, ranking second in career ppg (29.7, trailing only Michael Jordan), third in mpg (45.1, trailing only legendary iron man centers Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell) and seventh in spg (2.07, just behind Jordan).

Now, let's put those statistics in historical perspective. Iverson lapped the field in career regular season points among the six foot and under set (Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy is second with 17,949)--but he also scored more career points than Charles Barkley, Robert Parish, Adrian Dantley, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton or Larry Bird! The regular season career mpg leader list is dominated by Hall of Fame big men like Chamberlain, Russell, Jerry Lucas and Bob Pettit, plus powerfully built swingmen Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and LeBron James. Jerry West is the only other relatively small player in the top ten and he is a legit 6-3; Latrell Sprewell, a 6-5 shooting guard, rounds out the top 10.

The free throw numbers are a testament to Iverson's mental and physical toughness: he repeatedly drove to the hoop, crashed into players who were literally 100 pounds heavier than he is, accepted the punishment and made the free throws. You can legitimately question Iverson's shot selection at times but you can never question his heart, his toughness or his will to win.

Iverson's defense is often berated but he was a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year at Georgetown and his steals numbers in the NBA attest to the fact that he certainly put forth some effort at that end of the court despite the huge offensive load that he carried. Iverson was not a lock down defender but he proved under Coach Larry Brown in Philadelphia that he could be a cog on a very good defensive team and lead that team to the NBA Finals.

Iverson won four NBA scoring titles, matching 6-7 Hall of Famer George Gervin and exceeding every other player in pro basketball history except for Jordan (10) and Chamberlain (seven). Iverson won as many scoring titles as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined! It is certainly true that Iverson did not shoot a great percentage from the field but TNT commentator Doug Collins consistently made the excellent observation that because Iverson drew so much attention with his bold forays to the hoop his misses often turned into excellent offensive rebounding opportunities for his teammates.

Many players who attempt 18-20 or more field goals per game get labeled as "selfish gunners" (though no one says that about LeBron James or Dwyane Wade). I have often expressed justifiable skepticism about how assists are officially recorded but the assist still remains the only statistic we have to quantify passing and it is worth noting that Iverson ranked in the top ten in the NBA in that category four different times, amassing a career average of 6.2 apg--better than Walt Frazier, Dave Bing and Chauncey Billups, among others.

Iverson and Billups will always be linked, of course, because Detroit's trade of Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Iverson in November 2008 seems--in retrospect--to be the beginning of the end of Iverson's career. Much has been written about that trade and its aftermath--and most of what has been written is garbage. Let's dispel a few myths:

1) Contrary to revisionist history, Iverson did not "fail" in Denver: he ranked seventh in scoring and eighth in assists in 2006-07 and third in scoring and ninth in assists in 2007-08. The Nuggets made the playoffs both years, including a 50 win season in 2007-08 that was the best regular season performance by that franchise since 1987-88. In 2007, the Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Spurs, winning one more playoff game against San Antonio than LeBron James' Eastern Conference champions did in the NBA Finals. In 2008, the Nuggets were swept in the first round by the eventual Western Conference champion Lakers; Iverson led the Nuggets in scoring and assists during that series, while Carmelo Anthony shot just .364 from the field and led the Nuggets in turnovers.

2) Although Billups certainly played very well for Denver last season, the "change in culture" in Denver largely consisted of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin getting healthy, Chris Andersen playing better than anyone expected and several Western Conference teams battling injuries to key players (Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Jazz), thus enabling the Nuggets to move up in the standings. The Nuggets exceeded their 2008 win total by four, blew by undermanned Dallas and New Orleans teams in the playoffs and then lost to the Lakers.

3) When the Pistons acquired Iverson, Joe Dumars said that the team would use Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and others to become a more explosive offensive team, particularly in the fourth quarter, a time when the Pistons too often became stagnant during the past few years in the playoffs. Early in the season, Iverson played brilliantly in a Detroit win over the Lakers but the Pistons inexplicably decided that Rodney Stuckey must be in the starting lineup no matter what. That meant that either Iverson or Richard Hamilton would have to come off of the bench, a role that neither All-Star player is accustomed to filling. It made no sense for the Pistons to bring in Iverson and not let him play the way that he is used to playing, especially when Dumars specifically said that he acquired Iverson to make the Pistons more explosive offensively.

There is merit to the argument that regardless of what was said to Iverson that he should do whatever his coach asks him to do--including coming off of the bench--but clearly Iverson is too honest and too prideful to do that; Iverson does not want to sit behind inferior players. I think that Iverson is still capable of averaging 20-plus ppg for a playoff team but the poor way that the Pistons treated him--and the defiant way that Iverson responded--has clearly lowered Iverson's perceived value. The Memphis experiment was obviously doomed from the start and the less that is said about that brief moment in his career the better.

It is bitterly ironic that in the immediate wake of Iverson's retirement announcement, Iverson's name was one of just six--the others being Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal--mentioned during ESPN's NBA Shootaround as a candidate for "Player of the Decade." Love him or hate him, there is no denying Iverson's colossal impact on NBA history.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:46 AM

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rising to the Occasion: Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Scorers

This article was originally published in the May 2002 issue of Basketball Digest. Readers who are interested in this subject should also check out my December 5, 2006 NBCSports.com article titled Stepping Up in the Playoffs.

Evaluating individual playoff scoring statistics differs from comparing individual regular season scoring statistics. The regular season is the same length for all players, so comparisons of two players' scoring averages over five, seven and ten year periods (a subject that I examined in a January 2002 Basketball Digest article) reflect their production over a similar and significant amount of games. In a given season a player may participate in up to 20 playoff games; this means that comparing five playoff seasons of two players could mean looking at one player's production over 80-100 games versus another player's in only a handful of games.

Comparisons of a player's career playoff scoring average to his career regular season scoring average do not take into account which stage of his career a player participates in the bulk of his playoff games (see below for why Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson are perfect illustrations of this). A more precise method is to see how many seasons a player's playoff scoring average surpasses his regular season scoring average, while also considering the player's per minute point production (since most stars play more minutes in the postseason) and how well he maintains his shooting percentage in the postseason.

Entering the 2001-2002 season, Michael Jordan's 33.4 ppg career playoff scoring average ranked first in pro basketball history, nearly two ppg better than his 31.5 ppg regular season scoring average (also first in pro basketball history). His playoff scoring average exceeded his regular season scoring average 11 times in 13 seasons (including his 18 game regular season in 1985-86 and his 17 game comeback season in 1994-95). The only two seasons that Jordan did not achieve this distinction were 1986-87 (career high 37.1 ppg in the regular season, 35.7 ppg in the playoffs) and the Chicago Bulls' first championship season in 1990-91 (31.5 ppg versus 31.1 ppg).

His 38.4 points per 48 minutes in the postseason almost matches his amazing 39.2 points per 48 minutes in the regular season. Like most players, Jordan's field goal percentage declines in the playoffs but his 50.5% regular season percentage and 48.7% playoff percentage are both excellent, particularly for a guard. Jordan's 5987 postseason points easily rank first in pro basketball history and he won a record six NBA Finals MVPs.

Jerry West is the only player other than Jordan to rank in the top six in career playoff points (4457, fourth all-time) and scoring average (29.1, third all-time). His playoff scoring average is 2.1 ppg better than his regular season scoring average and his 33.8 points per 48 minutes in the playoffs slightly exceeds his 33.1 points per 48 minutes in the regular season. West's playoff scoring topped his regular season scoring nine times. He had one season in which his regular season scoring average was higher and one season in which his averages were equal. West also missed one playoff season due to injury and had two other postseasons in which he played a total of 15 minutes due to injuries.

West holds the single-series scoring average record (46.3 ppg in 1965 versus the Baltimore Bullets). He scored 40-plus points in all six games of that series, also a record. He averaged at least 30.8 ppg in the playoffs each year from 1964 until 1970 (except for 1967, when he played only one minute in one game). West won the first NBA Finals MVP in 1969 and is still the only player from the losing team to capture that honor. He shot 47.4% from the field in the regular season and 46.9% in the playoffs, exceptional accuracy for the player deservedly known as "Mr. Clutch."

Allen Iverson owns the second highest career playoff scoring average (30.3 ppg). He averages 4.1 ppg more in the playoffs than in the regular season. Iverson logs heavy minutes in the regular season (40.6 minutes per game) and almost goes the distance in the postseason (45.5 minutes per game), which is truly remarkable for a player who is listed (generously) at 6-0, 165 pounds.

Iverson scores slightly more points per minute in the postseason (32.0) than in the regular season (30.9). His playoff scoring has exceeded his regular season scoring two of the three seasons that he has participated in the playoffs (the Sixers did not qualify for the playoffs in his first two seasons). The only knock against Iverson is his shooting percentage, 42.6% in the regular season and 39.2% in the playoffs.

Reggie Miller does not score as much as any of the other players under consideration here, but he scores 4.0 ppg more in the postseason than the regular season and also averages 2.3 more points per 48 minutes in the playoffs. Miller shoots 47.6% from the field in the regular season and 45.6% in the playoffs; these numbers are comparable to West's and are good for a guard, especially considering the large number of three pointers that he makes. His legacy is not told in championships won or records set, but an extraordinary amount of clutch shots taken (and made) in the heat of playoff battle.

Rick Barry, the only player to win scoring titles in the NCAA, NBA and ABA, averaged 24.8 ppg in his NBA/ABA regular season career and increased that to 27.3 ppg (fifth all-time) in the playoffs. Interestingly, his playoff scoring average was higher than his regular season scoring average only four times in ten seasons (in three other seasons Barry's teams did not qualify for the playoffs).

Barry almost single-handedly carried the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA Championship, winning Finals MVP honors. He also averaged 40.8 ppg in a losing cause for the Warriors in the 1967 NBA Finals versus the 76ers and won a scoring title for the 1969 ABA Champion Oakland Oaks, although he did play in the playoffs that year due to injury.

Karl Malone ranks fifth in playoff points (4341) and seventh in playoff ppg (26.6). He scores slightly more in the playoffs than the regular season (25.9 ppg). He has scored more points in the playoffs than the regular season 10 times in 16 seasons. However, Malone's field goal percentage declines dramatically in the playoffs--from 52.4% in his regular season career to 46.6%. He has made as many as 50% of his field goals in only four playoff campaigns, while shooting below 45% five times. Several years ago Bill Walton criticized Malone for settling for too many perimeter shots against the Bulls in the Finals and Malone’s low shooting percentages provide evidence of this.

It may surprise some people that Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson averaged 7.6 ppg and 3.5 ppg less respectively in the postseason than in the regular season. Chamberlain averaged a record 50.4 ppg in the 1961-62 regular season, so his 35.0 ppg in that year's playoffs represents a decline, even though there are only a few players in basketball history who have ever averaged that much in a playoff season. Also, while Chamberlain played 14 NBA seasons, exactly half of his playoff games came in his five years with the Lakers, when he concentrated more exclusively on rebounding, passing and defense. Chamberlain averaged 29.3 ppg in his first 80 playoff games (29.4 points per 48 minutes) and 15.8 ppg (16.2 points per 48 minutes) as a Laker (note that he played almost 48 minutes per game his entire career!) He won the 1972 Finals MVP despite playing with a cast on one hand.

Similarly, Robertson averaged 29.7 ppg in his first 39 playoff games with the Cincinnati Royals (30.4 points per 48 minutes). He played the last four years of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, averaging 16.0 ppg in 47 playoff games (19.5 points per 48 minutes) and winning his only championship in 1971. Both Chamberlain and Robertson showed the ability to produce high scoring totals early in their careers and adjust their games later in their careers to make significant contributions on championship teams.

Bernard King's teams did not qualify for the playoffs in 10 of his seasons--but in his six playoff appearances King posted some awesome numbers. In the 1984 playoffs King averaged 34.8 ppg, including 42.6 ppg versus the Detroit Pistons, the second best series average ever at the time. He scored 40-plus points in the last four games of the five game series (a streak equaled later by Jordan and second only to West's 1965 exploits). King blew out his knee the next spring but still won the 1985 scoring title.

He missed one complete season and most of a second rehabilitating but persevered to become the first player with a reconstructed ACL to appear in an All-Star Game. That may not seem like a big deal in 2002 but at that time such injuries were always career altering and frequently career ending.

King missed the entire 1991-92 season due to another knee injury but returned for his swan song in 1992-93 with the Nets. He averaged 2.7 ppg in three playoff games that year. Why is that significant? It lowered his career playoff scoring average from 27.2 ppg, which would currently rank sixth all-time, to 24.5 ppg, which is not in the top ten.

Chamberlain, Robertson and King are excellent examples to remember the next time someone takes one or two isolated statistics and attempts to use them to define a player's entire career. The true story is often only revealed in the context of all of the numbers.

A Closer Look at Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Scorers

Player Playoff Pts. Rank Play. PPG Rank Reg. PPG Diff.







Michael Jordan 5987 1 33.4 1 31.5 1.9
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 5762 2 24.3 NR 24.6 -.3
Julius Erving 4580 3 24.2 NR 24.2 0
Jerry West 4457 4 29.1 3 27.0 2.1
Karl Malone 4341 5 26.6 7 25.9 0.7
Larry Bird 3897 6 23.8 NR 24.3 -.5
Elgin Baylor 3623 10 27.0 6 27.4 -.4
Shaquille O'Neal 2956 NR 28.2 4 27.7 .5
Rick Barry 2870 NR 27.3 5 24.8 2.5
Allen Iverson 1213 NR 30.3 2 26.2 4.1







Selected Others












Wilt Chamberlain 3607 NR 22.5 NR 30.1 -7.6
Reggie Miller 2445 NR 23.5 NR 19.5 4.0
Oscar Robertson 1910 NR 22.2 NR 25.7 -3.5
Bernard King 687 NR 24.5 NR 22.5 2.0

Player
Pl.> Reg. Pl. P/48 Reg. P/48 Pl. FG% Reg. FG%








Michael Jordan
11 38.4 39.2 48.7 50.5
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 12 31.2 32.1 53.3 55.9
Julius Erving
7 29.9 31.9 49.6 50.6
Jerry West
9 33.8 33.1 46.9 47.4
Karl Malone
10 30.9 33.3 46.6 52.4
Larry Bird
4 27.2 30.4 47.2 49.6
Elgin Baylor
6 31.6 32.8 43.9 43.1
Shaquille O'Neal
5 33.7 35.0 56.6 57.7
Rick Barry
4 33.9 31.8 44.4 45.7
Allen Iverson
2 32.0 30.9 39.2 42.6








Selected Others













Wilt Chamberlain
0 22.9 31.5 52.2 54.0
Reggie Miller
8 29.0 26.7 45.6 47.6
Oscar Robertson
4 25.0 29.2 46.0 48.5
Bernard King
4 35.3 32.1 55.9 51.8

Notes:

Statistics do not include 2001-02 season.

Players listed in order of career playoff points.

The first 10 players rank in the top ten in career playoff points
and/or career playoff ppg.

Statistics for Erving and Barry include ABA seasons.

"Diff." refers to the differential between playoff ppg and regular
season ppg.

"Pl.>Reg." indicates how many seasons a player's playoff ppg
exceeded his regular season ppg.

"P/48" refers to points per 48 minutes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:46 AM

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jeff Van Gundy Speaks the Truth About Allen Iverson

About a minute and a half after the Detroit Pistons acquired Allen Iverson from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (the Pistons later re-signed McDyess after the Nuggets released him), Dave Berri--of Wages of Wins/True Hoop fame--blamed every ill in the Detroit metro area on Iverson. When I posted some comments on Berri's site pointing out that it was not fair or logical to hold Iverson entirely responsible for the Pistons' record considering that the Pistons were without McDyess' services for a month, that they had a new coach and that they foolishly decided to bench either Iverson or Richard Hamilton so that Rodney Stuckey could start, Berri's dittohead idiot followers came out of the woodwork anonymously spewing nonsense (Berri generally lets his drones do his dirty work as opposed to directly responding--unless the various creatively named commenters on his site are in fact him in "disguise").

During Denver's 119-105 win over the L.A. Lakers on Friday night, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy spoke the truth about the Iverson situation in Detroit--and his words should sound very familiar to anyone who followed my analysis of the situation: "This is not to defend Iverson for some of the things--practicing and all that, whatever--but I think in the last year he has been the biggest scapegoat for the Detroit Pistons' shortcomings last year. That team just ran out of steam...Last year, the Detroit situation with him (Iverson) was mishandled. You don't bring in a guy like that and then tell either Richard Hamilton or Allen Iverson they're coming off the bench. You start Iverson, you start Hamilton, you bring Stuckey off the bench--or you just buy Iverson out when you make the trade. But to ask either one of those guys to come of the bench, to me, doesn't make any sense." In other words, a veteran NBA coach who is considered one of the sport's top TV analysts agrees 100% with what I have been saying for months about Iverson and Detroit.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:17 AM

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Etched in Time: George Vlosich III Turns a Child’s Toy into a Unique Sports Collectible

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the November 12, 2004 issue of Sports Collectors Digest under the title "Etch a Sketch Prodigy George Vlosich III Conquers New Worlds".

The answers to the two questions most frequently asked of George Vlosich III are "Hard work and dedication" and "No, it won’t erase if you shake it." Vlosich creates stunningly detailed artwork with an Etch a Sketch and his skills have earned him appearances on TV shows as varied as 20/20 and NBA Inside Stuff. People who see his work for the first time invariably ask, "How do you do that?" and "Will it erase if I shake it?"

Vlosich displayed several of his Etch a Sketch works—including depictions of Tracy McGrady, John Wooden, Cal Ripken and non-sports subjects such as The Andy Griffith Show and the movie Gangs of New York—at the 25th National Sports Collectors Convention held July 21-25, 2004 at the International Exhibition Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Vlosich has been to both previous Nationals in Cleveland. He also went to the National several years back in Anaheim, when Yahoo sponsored an online auction of some of his artwork. Vlosich's choice of subjects is often influenced by the potential opportunity to interact with one of his sports heroes: "A lot of times I do it by commission but sometimes it's like, 'Hey, I'd love to meet Tracy McGrady' and I'm going down to Florida, so I'll try to get a chance to meet him. That's the fun part for me." When Vlosich shows a completed Etch a Sketch to an athlete, the athlete frequently signs the red frame, but don't expect to see those on the market: "All the ones the players autograph—I keep every autograph, I don't sell any of the ones that are autographed. I just keep those for my personal collection."

He adds, "The one thing for me is I've never paid for an autograph. Even through my own work, I've always said that the player should sign it because he wants to sign it and not because I paid him to sign it. So, I've never actually paid for an autograph. That's kind of important to me." His Etch a Sketch work has provided Vlosich the opportunity to not only meet his favorite athletes and collect their signatures, but to obtain other collectibles as well: "I've had a chance to get some pretty neat collectibles. A lot of guys will autograph a ball or a bat or a jersey, which is really neat for me. Again, I keep (those items) for my personal collection and would never sell them. One of the things that I got was a Bulls team ball from the (record tying) 69th win of their 72 win season (1995-96). My brother got a signed ball by the whole team, too, which was just a great thing to have."

Ask Vlosich what the highlight has been so far and his face brightens when he describes his day at the home of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. George's younger brother Greg attended Coach Wooden's basketball camp in California, so the whole Vlosich family got a chance to meet Wooden at the camp. Vlosich had not done an Etch a Sketch of Wooden at that time, but when he mentioned his interest in doing one, the Wizard of Westwood responded very enthusiastically, saying "I'd love to see it." The next year (2000), the whole Vlosich family again traveled to California and Coach Wooden invited them over to his house: "Going up to his house and then seeing Coach Wooden standing at the door waving to us—that's a sight you don't get to see too often! He read poetry to us. He played songs that his players had written and stuff like that. It was just an incredible experience—listening to him talk, his knowledge, his wisdom. It was just awesome. It was a very humbling experience. It was just really cool. Going there, it was like a museum. It was incredible—and the stories he had to share."

Vlosich recalls how his Etch a Sketch career began: "Art has always been a God given talent. I have painted and drawn since I was 2 years old—I would wake up, watch cartoons and draw. One day we were going on vacation to the nation's capital and we stopped to pick up my Mom's old Etch a Sketch…I started playing with it and did the U.S. Capitol Building. When I looked at it when I was done I couldn't believe it and my family was amazed. We felt like, we've got to take a picture of this—you know, my little brother was in the car, he might erase it. We pulled over to a gas station and took a picture of it and that was it. I just kept practicing with it and wanted to see how good I could get."

The 25 year old Vlosich, who works for Cleveland based Wyse Advertising, has been perfecting his craft for more than a decade and a half: "I went to art school and as I got better at drawing I got better at the Etch a Sketch and vice versa, so they just kind of fed off each other…People don't realize that it didn't always look this good. It takes time and practice. You can't just go out there and do it."

Vlosich adds, "When I first started doing them they probably took two hours at the most and I started off doing simple things like Batman, Spiderman, the California Raisins—real easy things, cartoon stuff. The first athlete I did was Cal Ripken (from an image) on a baseball card. I put the name on the bottom and that was the only way you could know it was Cal Ripken. From the progression of getting better, they can take 70-80 hours now."

The increase in time and effort naturally results in a corresponding decrease in productivity: "I probably do, on average, five or six a year that I would sell. People commission me. I try to keep it as limited as possible. I don't want everyone and their brother to have one. It's a unique piece of art and it should stay that way." Vlosich estimates that 75% of his Etch a Sketch works are sports related but he adds, "I'd like to branch out into movies, TV, pop culture kind of things." They range in price from $5-8000 depending on the complexity of the piece. On his website Vlosich sells prints of his Etch a Sketch art; professionally framed and double matted, prices start at $125. He also produces original pencil or acrylic illustrations made to order and lithographs.

It is unlikely that anyone will ever attain the proficiency with an Etch a Sketch that Vlosich has, but even if that were to occur, Vlosich feels that he has something else that sets his work apart: "If anybody ever got as good as I did at Etch a Sketch, I would still have (an edge on) them on design, on overall design. I try to make everything fit in there just so, so that it becomes one unit, one nice image." He credits a lot of his talents in this area to his father, who has many years of experience working in and teaching advertising design.

Of course, none of this would be possible without a way to keep the Etch a Sketch from erasing. While Vlosich taught himself how to create his artwork, Ohio Art—the maker of the Etch a Sketch—told him how to protect his masterpieces from his younger brother, falls off of a countertop and other hazards that typically befall Etch a Sketches: "When I would send (photos of the) artwork to Ohio Art I always kept winning the contest. I just kept winning and finally, they called up and wanted to see if I was really doing this…Some lady came up to the house and brought a bunch of Etch a Sketches with her. She actually watched me do an Etch a Sketch. From that point on they told me how I could actually preserve them and make them permanent. Basically, I remove the back and remove all the powder that is inside. There is aluminum powder, which, when you shake it, sticks to the glass (erasing the previous image) and then the two knobs scratch away the powder that’s on there (to create new artwork)—it’s almost like a negative kind of image. What I do is just remove everything that is inside and screw it back together."

Greg graduated from attending Wooden’s basketball camp to playing for Cleveland State's basketball team and he is an artist as well; he displayed his painting of Tracy McGrady alongside George's Etch a Sketch work at the National. George explains the difference between his work and his brother's: "My brother loves to use watercolors. I haven't perfected that yet and I don't think that I ever will because I’m a little slower in my approach. It's a little like the difference between a fast break style in basketball versus a half court style. You put a color down in watercolors, it's pretty much down and you can't take it up. In oil painting you have a lot of room for mistakes, painting over it, you can make it as thick as you want it. You can just keep painting over it."

If there is one thing that George Vlosich III would like people to understand, it is that—while he feels blessed to have the ability to create Etch a Sketch art and is grateful for the doors that this talent has opened for him—he is more than just the "Etch a Sketch" guy. He is a serious artist who works in traditional media such as oil paintings and pencil illustrations. An art school project to create an ad campaign eventually led to him designing the uniforms for the Cleveland Force professional soccer team. He has donated artwork to an impressive roster of charities—including Akron Children’s Hospital, Muscular Dystrophy, March of Dimes, Jimmy V. Fund and NY 911 Tragedy Fund. Vlosich is very direct about his next goal: "I want to open my own design/advertising studio." He plans to involve his father and his friends in this project, which would incorporate "advertising design, stuff on the computer, logos. I enjoy all that stuff. Hopefully that will happen pretty soon."

Here is a photo of the Vlosich brothers and their father at the home of legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden, plus photos of the Cleveland Force uniform George designed, George's Etches of LeBron James, Allen Iverson and John Wooden and a painting of Tracy McGrady by George's brother Greg.













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posted by David Friedman @ 1:58 AM

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jeff Van Gundy Sounds Off on Iverson, Isiah and Redick

Hubie Brown and Doug Collins have long been the gold standard for NBA color commentators but Jeff Van Gundy's candor and insight have moved him up to just below their level; the only drawbacks with Van Gundy are some of his forced attempts at humor and his occasional off the wall comments (that perhaps are meant tongue in cheek).

During the telecast of New York's Friday night 105-95 win over Orlando--which must have been awkward for Van Gundy since his brother Stan coaches the Magic--Jeff Van Gundy provided concise and accurate analysis about a variety of NBA subjects:

1) Van Gundy said that it is wrong to place all of the blame for Detroit's poor performance this season on Allen Iverson. The Pistons have changed coaches and endured far more injury problems than they faced in previous seasons. Although Van Gundy did not mention this, it is also worth noting that as part of the Chauncey Billups-Iverson trade, Detroit's leading rebounder Antonio McDyess was also dealt to Denver and--by NBA rules--the Pistons could not re-sign him for a month. Van Gundy said that the rest of the Pistons are being given a free pass for their collapse from last season's 59-23 record while everyone simply piles blame on Iverson.

2) Similarly, Van Gundy said that while it is easy for everyone in New York to blast Isiah Thomas, the truth is that Thomas did a great job of selecting players in the draft, particularly his late first round selections (including David Lee and Nate Robinson). Van Gundy added that Thomas made some mistakes with his free agent signings but he deserves to be given credit for bringing in a number of young players who are playing key roles with the Knicks.

3) Van Gundy pointed out that the Knicks used a defensive strategy against the Magic that other teams would be wise to copy: single cover Dwight Howard in the post while the perimeter defenders stay attached to Orlando's three point shooters. Howard has yet to show that he can consistently go off for 35 or 40 points, so there is no need to double team him; Howard has only scored 35 points or more three times this season--and the Magic lost two of those games. Howard is often compared to Shaquille O'Neal but when O'Neal was a young beast he would drop 30 or more points on any team that single covered him, particularly in the playoffs; Howard has yet to score 30 points even once in his 14 game playoff career and has had fewer than 20 points in eight of those 14 contests. O'Neal scored 32 points in his 14th career playoff game and had only two games of fewer than 20 points in his first 14 playoff games; O'Neal added two more 30 point efforts in his next seven playoff games as he led the Magic to the NBA Finals in just his third year in the league, 1994-95, when he won the regular season scoring title with a 29.3 ppg average, a total that Howard has surpassed in just nine games this year while averaging a career-best 20.9 ppg in his fifth season.

That is why even though Howard's rebounding and defensive dominance make him a lock for the All-NBA First Team and a top five MVP candidate there is no way I would rank him ahead of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade in the MVP race--and the same thing is true of Chris Paul, another excellent player whose team can best be contained by guarding him one on one and staying attached to the three point shooters: Paul has scored 35 or more points just four times this season and his New Orleans Hornets lost three of those games. If a team is foolish enough to single cover James, Bryant or Wade, any of those players will go off for 40 or 50 points while shooting a good percentage and their teams will most likely win but Howard and Paul do not have the skill sets and/or dispositions to dominate by scoring in that fashion.

4) Van Gundy observed that the Magic do not have enough players who are capable of creating dribble penetration. Jon Barry accused the Magic of "settling for three pointers" but Van Gundy made an important distinction: the Magic are not "settling for three pointers" but in fact "maximizing what (they) do well." Van Gundy added that Rashard Lewis is not going to post up power forwards, not is Courtney Lee going to break down his man off of the dribble; other than posting up Howard, the Magic's best offensive weapon is the three point shot. This goes back to point #3: Magic opponents should strive to take away the three point shot and dare Howard to go off for 35 or 40 points.

5) J.J. Redick shot 0-7 from the field and he looked even worse on defense. Redick is averaging 6.0 ppg on .394 field goal shooting in 17.5 mpg this season and it hardly seems likely that the former Lottery pick will ever make a significant impact in the league. He is listed at 6-4, 190 but I've seen him in person and can say that 6-4 is a most generous estimate; Redick has hit the weights a bit since entering the league and may very well be a bit bigger than 190 but he is of course still giving away 15-20 pounds to most shooting guards even if he actually weighs 200. Van Gundy said that Redick is simply too short to be effective at either end of the court; on defense, opposing players can just shoot right over him, while on offense Redick's diminutive stature means that he has to alter his natural shooting motion at times even to get his shot off, which is part of the reason that he is not shooting well from the field. Barry--a 6-4, 195, 14 year NBA veteran--added that one of the biggest differences between college and the NBA is the speed of the game. In the NBA it is imperative to have a quick release, something that Redick does not have; Van Gundy and Barry mentioned that similarly sized players from the 1990s and early 2000s such as Jeff Hornacek (6-3, 190) and Dell Curry (6-4, 190) had much quicker shot releases than Redick, while a contemporary player like Kyle Korver (6-7, 210) is much bigger than Redick and has a quicker shot release. An extra inch of height or a split second quicker release may not seem like much but Van Gundy said that those things make the difference between being able to make an on balance attempt with good form and having to change your shooting motion or rush your shot. Of course, long-time 20 Second Timeout readers know that I have made similar points about Redick on many occasions, including a March Madness post in 2006 during the height of Redick's acclaimed collegiate career in which I predicted that he would be drafted higher than he should be and would likely become the next Trajan Langdon. Langdon (6-3, 197) averaged 5.4 ppg in 14.6 mpg while shooting .416 from the field in three NBA seasons and is now a productive player in Russia, thriving in FIBA play where his strengths as a spot up shooter are maximized and his weaknesses as a ballhandler and defender can be masked. Redick has averaged 5.5 ppg in 14.4 mpg while shooting .407 from the field in his three NBA seasons. Perhaps Van Gundy will enlighten David Thorpe about the true nature of Redick's skill set, since my attempt to do so fell on deaf ears.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Rejuvenated Pistons Beat Celtics

Detroit's 105-95 victory at Boston was rich in subplots. The Celtics were without the services of Kevin Garnett for the fourth game in a row and the seventh time this season; this is the first time that they lost sans "The Big Ticket" in 2008-09 and they were 9-2 without him last season: the fact that they have gone 15-3 without Garnett during the past two seasons indicates just how talented the Celtics really are and how committed they are to playing solid defense even without their best defensive player.

The Pistons were also playing without a former league MVP: Allen Iverson missed his second consecutive game and the once floundering Pistons have now won two in a row on the road against two of the three best teams in the East (they beat Orlando on Friday). This season has been heaven on Earth for anyone who dislikes Iverson and/or wants to "prove" that Iverson is overrated. The Pistons have been in disarray all season long, so the simple minded look at the trade that sent Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess and conclude that Detroit's problems are all because of Iverson. Part of the problem is that these people do not even describe the trade correctly, let alone understand its impact; note that Iverson was swapped not straight up for Billups but also for McDyess. The Nuggets released McDyess but by league rule the Pistons had to wait a month to re-sign him and they went 9-8 while McDyess--their leading rebounder last season and again this season--was out of action.

In 2007-08, the Pistons went 59-23 using nine different starting lineups--but their main starting lineup (which included McDyess) went 46-17; this season, the Pistons have already used 12 different starting lineups, with no single grouping playing together for more than 13 games. The Pistons also fired Coach Flip Saunders in the offseason and replaced him with Michael Curry, who had never been a head coach in the NBA.

Any objective person with a reasonable amount of intelligence can look at the information in the preceding two paragraphs and understand that there are a variety of reasons that the Pistons are not as good as they were last year--but that has not stopped less objective/intelligent people from declaring that Iverson is the main villain in the Detroit drama.

Early in the game, ABC's Hubie Brown, perhaps the best NBA color commentator, offered this trenchant analysis of the Pistons' season, completely refuting the people who foolishly try to blame Iverson alone for all of the Pistons' woes:

Everything in basketball comes down to chemistry. This team--whether you say it's the lack of Chauncey Billups to take the big shots at the end of games and make the big free throws and three point plays--whatever the problem is, it is a team problem. It's not just Allen Iverson and it's not just Rip Hamilton. Let's look at the lack of production by the frontcourt people. They tried the young players here and it didn't work out. Now they have McDyess back in the lineup. But let's look at Rasheed Wallace; his numbers are down. Whatever the problem is, the offensive creativity by the coaching staff is not there. You can't be one of the best (point) differential teams in this league and win 59 games and then all of a sudden this year you're 29th in scoring and you have a minus (point) differential. There is more to this than just one player.

Also, during the Lakers-Suns telecast, Jeff Van Gundy completely rejected the notion that Iverson is solely to blame for Detroit's poor record and he sounded a cautionary note about the supposed culture change in Denver:

There have been a lot of changes there (in Detroit). There have been coaching changes and changes in rotations. Who is to blame for putting Rip Hamilton on the bench if he's better as a starter? That's not Allen Iverson's decision. That's a coaching decision.

Let's wait to coronate the Nuggets until they do something in the playoffs. They've had good seasons in the past and they've lost in the first round. To me, this idea of bashing Allen Iverson is way out of bounds, as if he is singularly the reason that the Pistons have struggled.


Shifting our focus to players who actually played in the game, Richard Hamilton was the best player on the court. As Van Gundy mentioned, Coach Curry had recently turned Hamiliton into a sixth man and the Pistons only went 4-12 with Hamilton coming off of the bench. Curry is apparently determined to keep starting Rodney Stuckey no matter how badly Stuckey plays--he was solid against Boston but played poorly in the 16 game slide--but with Iverson out of action Hamilton returned to the starting lineup and produced 25 points, a game-high nine assists and six rebounds. All five Detroit starters scored in double figures. Paul Pierce led Boston with 26 points on 11-20 shooting but Ray Allen (10 points on 2-10 shooting) and Rajon Rondo (eight points on 2-7 shooting) were MIA.

Stephon Marbury made his second appearance in a Boston uniform, finishing with 0 points on 0-3 shooting, three assists, two turnovers and four personal fouls in 12 minutes. He had a plus/minus number of +6 after posting a -7 plus/minus number in 13 minutes in Boston's 104-99 win over Indiana on Friday night. Let's take a closer look at Marbury's performance versus Detroit:

Marbury first entered the game at the start of the second quarter, with Boston leading 22-20. On his first possession, Hamilton shot a jumper right in Marbury's eye. The Celtics inbounded the ball to Marbury, but Will Bynum picked his pocket and cruised in for a layup. On the next possession, Marbury got an assist by feeding a cutting Pierce for a layup.

Marbury got his first foul trying to chase Hamilton around a screen. Then, less than two minutes after Bynum stripped Marbury one on one in the backcourt, Bynum stole the ball from him again. This time, Marbury fouled him and Bynum split a pair of free throws.

Marbury fed Powe for a layup/three point play to tie the score at 29. Later, Marbury took a low percentage, fadeaway jumper with plenty of time on the shot clock but Powe bailed him out by rebounding the miss and converting the putback.

Marbury struggled on defense no matter who he was assigned to guard, leading to open shots for a variety of Pistons and a high foul total for such limited minutes. The Pistons repeatedly isolated seldom used reserve Walter Herrmann on Marbury, leading to two easy baskets plus a foul by Mikki Moore when Moore came over to double team Herrmann. Herrmann made both of the resulting free throws, so when Marbury went back to the bench the Celtics trailed 39-37. He had made a couple decent passes but they were both plays that other guards on the roster could also have converted; meanwhile, Marbury missed both of his field goal attempts, committed two backcourt turnovers that led to three easy points and he was a defensive sieve. All of that added up to a -4 plus/minus number for Marbury in the first half. The Pistons expanded their lead to 55-47 by halftime.

The Celtics used suffocating defense to open the third quarter with a 12-0 run but the Pistons battled back to take a 77-70 lead by the time Marbury checked back in with just :25.7 remaining in the third quarter. The final possession of the quarter was an isolation play for Pierce, who was not able to score.

Marbury stayed in the game to start the fourth quarter but the Celtics made a significant adjustment; Eddie House handled the ball instead of Marbury, who simply spotted up in the corner. While that -4 plus/minus number is a pretty accurate indicator of Marbury's second quarter "contributions," his +6 plus/minus number in the fourth quarter is very deceptive. Marbury was involved in many plays in the second quarter and most of them were negative: as noted above, he lost the ball twice, took a bad shot and was ineffective defensively. On the other hand, he was largely an on court bystander when the Celtics rallied early in the fourth quarter. House not only took care of the ballhandling responsibilities but he drained two big three pointers as the Celtics used an 11-2 run to take an 81-79 lead. The Celtics were up 87-84 when Marbury went back to the bench for good with 6:03 remaining; in the fourth quarter he shot 0-1, had one assist and committed two fouls. Pierce and House did most of the heavy lifting, while Marbury was not involved in the offensive action and continued to struggle to keep up defensively.

I understand that Marbury may be rusty after having so much time off--but there is a good reason why he has been inactive all season: he has proven on many occasions to be such a bad teammate that the Knicks decided that they were better off paying him not to play even though he is a more talented athlete than any of their point guards. That says a lot. The Marbury-House backcourt pairing is odd; both are shoot first players but House is a much better shooter, someone who should be paired with a player who is willing and able to distribute the ball. If the Celtics are simply going to have House or Pierce handle the ball when Marbury is in the game--as they did in the fourth quarter--then what is the point of having Marbury out there at all when he is clearly a defensive liability? The Celtics are shorthanded for the moment because Garnett and reserve guard Tony Allen are sidelined but whose minutes is Marbury going to take when the Celtics are once again at full strength? Marbury's offensive contributions will probably increase as he gets acclimated to his new team but he is highly unlikely to improve much defensively. Since he is in a contract year, Marbury may very well exercise enough good judgment to not be a negative presence in the locker room--but that does not mean that he will actually make a positive on court contribution.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:51 AM

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