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Sunday, January 04, 2015

NBA Potpourri: James Harden, David Blatt, and The New York Knicks' Mess

The start of a new year is as good a time as any to revisit some recurring NBA themes, specifically how James Harden's game should be evaluated, how good of an NBA coach David Blatt is and what it will take to turn around the New York Knicks.

How Good Is James Harden?

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in 2012 after Harden refused to sign anything less than a max contract, I declared that Harden is best-suited to being a third option on a championship-contending team and I rejected the notion that he is an All-NBA First Team or Second Team caliber player. In contrast, Houston General Manager Daryl Morey, one of the most highly regarded "stat gurus," proclaimed that Harden is a "foundational player." I had never heard that phrase before but the only relevant or sensible interpretation is that Morey believes that Harden is great enough to be the best player on a championship-caliber team and/or that Harden is great enough to lift a mediocre or worse team well above its otherwise expected performance level. Harden is more than a third of the way through his third season in Houston, so one can draw at least preliminary conclusions about his game. Three issues should be examined: How Harden's departure affected the Thunder, how Harden's arrival affected the Rockets and how Harden has performed in terms of his individual productivity.

The Thunder posted a .712 winning percentage in Harden's final season with the team (2011-12) and they advanced to the NBA Finals, losing to the Miami Heat in no small part because Harden performed awfully on the sport's biggest stage; during the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden averaged 12.4 ppg--4.4 ppg worse than his regular season average--while shooting just .375 from the field and committing 12 turnovers in 164 minutes (Harden's teammate Russell Westbrook posted 11 turnovers in 211 minutes despite playing most of his minutes against the Heat's best players while Harden had the opportunity to play against reserves and/or tired starters).

Without Harden in 2012-13, the Thunder improved their winning percentage to .732 and eliminated Harden's Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs--but Westbrook suffered a playoff-ending injury versus the Rockets, crushing the Thunder's hopes of returning to the NBA Finals. In 2013-14, the Thunder posted a .720 winning percentage even though Westbrook missed 36 games while recovering from his knee injury. The Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. This season, both Westbrook and 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP Kevin Durant have missed a significant number of games due to injury but the Thunder are 17-17, including six wins in their past 10 games as Durant and Westbrook have returned to action.

There is no evidence that Harden's departure has negatively impacted the Thunder; their regular season record improved without him--no small accomplishment considering how good their record was in 2011-12--and their failure to make it back to the NBA Finals is related to injuries, not Harden's absence. If the Thunder had kept Harden then they likely would have lost Serge Ibaka and they would have been worse off.

What about Harden's impact on his new team? The Rockets' winning percentage improved from .515 to .549 in Harden's first season in Houston. That is equivalent to about three wins in an 82 game season. After missing the playoffs for three straight seasons, the Rockets sneaked in as the eighth seed and promptly lost in the first round to, as mentioned above, Harden's old team.

In 2013-14, the Rockets added Dwight Howard--a five-time All-NBA First Team center who had almost completely recovered from the back surgery that slowed him down in 2012-13 when he played for the L.A. Lakers--and improved their winning percentage to .659. The Rockets tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth best record in the Western Conference, received homecourt advantage versus Portland based on a tiebreaker and still did not manage to even push the series to seven games, losing 4-2. 

This season, the Rockets got off to a fast start but their current winning percentage is .697 and they would not even have homecourt advantage in the first round if the playoffs began today. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and it seems much more likely that they will fall behind the L.A. Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder as opposed to passing the teams that are already ahead of them in the standings.

The Rockets have improved a bit since Harden's arrival but they are still not a legitimate contender and the improvement that they have made has at least as much to do with Dwight Howard as it does with Harden. Harden is neither carrying a bad roster to unexpected heights nor is he lifting a good roster into legitimate championship contention. The Rockets have been first round playoff fodder the past two seasons and there is no reason to believe that they will advance past the first round this season.

Individually, Harden has put up some gaudy scoring numbers. He ranked fifth in the league in scoring in both 2012-13 and 2013-14 and he currently leads the league in scoring. However, Harden's field goal percentage plummeted as his role changed from being the third option to being the first option. For such a big-time scorer, Harden has a very limited offensive game; he either shoots three pointers or he drives to the hoop, throws himself into opposing players and begs for foul calls (which he often gets, at least in the regular season). Harden has no postup game and no midrange game; he plays the way that "stat gurus" prefer, because he racks up most of his points from either three pointers or free throws. It does not require an advanced mathematics degree to figure out that long two point shots (i.e., shots taken from just inside three point range) are not good shots; a player who has the ball just inside the three point arc should either step back and take advantage of the potential extra point or else drive closer to the hoop for a higher percentage two point shot. However, the idea held by many "stat gurus" that the midrange game is completely inefficient and/or unnecessary is extreme. Teams that cannot score in the midrange game are not going to advance very far in the playoffs unless they perform exceptionally well in other areas on a consistent basis.

Harden puts up decent assist totals but those numbers are a deceptive product of Houston's drive and kick offense; Harden is not individually creating offensive opportunities for his teammates a la great playmakers such as Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas.

A player like Harden is not so hard to defend in the playoffs when the competition is tougher and the teams are well rested; you put one mobile defender on Harden, you deny Harden open three point shots and when Harden drives you avoid body contact while making sure to contest his shot. It is not necessary to double team Harden; Harden does not "tilt the floor" the way that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant do. It is no accident that Harden has shot worse than .400 from the field in three of his five postseasons, including both of his Houston playoff appearances.

Despite his high scoring average, I still think that Harden is an overrated offensive player. When Durant and Westbrook created opportunities for Harden, Harden was a much more efficient player. Now, Harden has a license to shoot at any time but he is not efficient and he has not elevated his team beyond the middle of the playoff pack.

Then, there is the notorious matter of Harden's defense. Harden may be the worst defender among All-Star players in quite some time. Often, he does not even pretend to try at that end of the court. Supposedly his defense has improved this season but he set the bar so low that the only way he could have gotten worse is if he actually put the ball in the hoop for the other team.

So, if my description of Harden is correct then why did he make the All-Star team the past two years and why did he earn an All-NBA Third Team selection in 2013 before making the All-NBA First Team in 2014? I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

In 2013, I gave Harden serious All-NBA consideration before tapping Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry as my choices for the league's six best guards. Last season, injuries decimated the ranks of the league's elite guards (including Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), paving the way for Harden to ascend to All-NBA First Team status.

Maybe Harden will prove me wrong. Maybe he will become more efficient offensively. Maybe he will start to play defense. Maybe he will shoot better than .400 in the playoffs and lead Houston past the first round. Until he does those things, though, I will not consider him an elite or "foundational" player.

Is David Blatt an NBA Championship-caliber Coach?

The simple answer is "No." How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title.

Let us not misunderstand what happened several years ago when Team USA went through a stretch of failing to win gold medals in FIBA play. Those Team USA rosters did not include Kobe Bryant--the best player in the world at the time--and neither the players nor the coaching staff took the task seriously enough. If Team USA had been better coached and if the rosters had been better constructed then Team USA would have won every time. The fact that some FIBA teams could win one 40 minute game under FIBA rules against NBA players did not at all prove that the FIBA players and/or teams are superior to NBA players and NBA teams playing under NBA rules. If the best FIBA team played an 82 game NBA schedule that team would struggle to win 41 games--but if Team USA players trained year round under FIBA rules they could show up in any FIBA league or competition and win the championship.

The NBA game is faster, tougher, more physical and more complicated than the FIBA game with which Blatt is familiar. Blatt's supposedly sophisticated FIBA offensive sets are not getting the job done in the NBA even though Blatt's Cleveland squad is blessed with the best player in the NBA, two other All-Stars and a host of good NBA role players--and Blatt has yet to prove that he can teach and/or motivate NBA players to play good defense on a consistent basis.

The real questions are (1) Can David Blatt become an NBA championship-caliber coach? and (2) Will he become such a coach fast enough to keep his job in Cleveland? Blatt is not entirely to blame for Cleveland performing below expectations; LeBron James has admittedly coasted at times, various players have been injured and now Anderson Varejao is out for the season. However, even when LeBron James played hard and the Cavaliers were at full strength they did not consistently look like a championship team. It is interesting to recall how much criticism Mike Brown received during his first stint as Cleveland's coach. The current Cleveland team has more name-brand talent than Brown ever coached in Cleveland--though I think that talent on Brown's teams has been underrated a bit--but Blatt's squad lacks the attention to detail on defense that Brown's teams consistently displayed.

What Will it Take to Turn Around the Knicks?

The Knicks must get rid of Carmelo Anthony and rebuild their roster from the bottom up. When Mike Ditka first became coach of the Chicago Bears, he told the players that the good news was that he was going to lead the team to a championship but the bad news was that most of them would not be on the team by the time that happened. I expected that after Phil Jackson took over New York's basketball operations he would not re-sign Anthony; if someone other than Jackson did that he would probably be ridiculed for letting an allegedly elite player go but I thought that Jackson has enough championship credibility to defend such a move in the media--and cutting ties with Anthony is clearly the route that the Knicks should have taken.

Jackson publicly identified the Knicks' problems before he joined the team's front office: the Knicks have, as Jackson put it, a "clumsy roster." Anthony will probably be able to put the ball in the bucket until he is 40 years old but his overall game has not improved much since he entered the league: he likes to play one-on-one isolation basketball, he passes only as a last resort, he plays defense when he feels like doing so (not often enough to lead a team to a championship) and he is a capable, though not exceptional, rebounder considering his overall athletic gifts. He is not a good leader; he and his teams perform best when he is being guided/mentored by players with a championship mentality (Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd in the NBA, Kobe Bryant with Team USA). 

The Knicks are currently 5-30, barely ahead of a Philadelphia team that has been accused of tanking. How can anyone possibly believe that Anthony is even close to being an elite player? Take Anthony off of that New York roster and add any elite player from the past 30 years; can you imagine the Knicks only winning five out of 35 games? A few years ago, Kobe Bryant made it to the playoffs in the Western Conference with Smush Parker at point guard and Kwame Brown at center. At some point, people have to stop looking at statistics, stop being blinded by reputation and just look at what is actually happening on the court. Carmelo Anthony is a physically gifted athlete and an All-Star caliber performer but he is never, ever going to lead a team to an NBA championship. He could possibly be the second best player on a championship team if the best player is a great leader, if the team is extremely well coached and if the right supporting cast is on hand.

I wonder if Jackson thought that Anthony would play his way out of New York in such a fashion that Jackson would not be blamed and meanwhile Jackson could take his time retooling the rest of the roster. In other words, if the Knicks had posted a respectable 45-37 record this season and Anthony had turned in his typical playoff disappearing act in a first round loss then Anthony might have considered waiving his no-trade clause and Jackson could have dealt Anthony without being viewed as the villain.

Jackson must have known that the Knicks would not be a contender this season but he could not have possibly imagined things going as disastrously as they have. Media members are rightly criticizing Jackson for giving up Tyson Chandler but Jackson's biggest mistake thus far has been committing so much guaranteed money to someone who is just not a franchise player. Jackson should have done what Masai Ujiri did in Denver: send Anthony to a team dumb enough to take him in exchange for a package of good, solid players. If Anthony would not have agreed to such a sign and trade, then the Knicks should have let him walk and used the salary cap space to rebuild their roster. Normally, I would not advocate possibly letting an All-Star leave without getting anything in return but in this case the reality is that Anthony is not going to lead New York to a championship and thus it makes no sense for the Knicks to pay him as if he is an elite performer.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM


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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kobe Bryant is not as Good as Michael Jordan--So What?

Kobe Bryant scored 26 points during the Lakers' 100-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday December 14 to move past Michael Jordan into third place on pro basketball's career scoring list. One might think that this accomplishment would be an occasion to reflect upon Bryant's consistency and longevity but while some observers have taken that approach many commentators go to great lengths--either via anecdotes or via statistics--to "prove" that Jordan is not just better than Bryant but that Jordan is much better. The very fact that the comparison is often made--even if it is just done to belittle Bryant--says a lot. No one is comparing scrub players to Michael Jordan. For that matter, no one is comparing LeBron James or Tim Duncan or Dwyane Wade or Kevin Garnett to Jordan. Bryant has won five championships and he has been a dominant two-way player since the early 2000s. There is no one else since Jordan retired who can be compared with Jordan. Yes, everyone in the post-Jordan era falls short in that matchup, but at least a case can be made for Bryant in terms of Bryant being a fundamentally sound, freakishly competitive multiple championship winner with a high pain tolerance and a low tolerance for teammates who lack willpower and desire.

The way that some people compare Jordan and Bryant is interesting. The best case for Jordan versus Bryant would focus on Jordan's efficiency and Jordan's performances during his 6-0 run in NBA Finals (Bryant has one more Finals appearance than Jordan but also two more Finals losses). Of course, field goal percentages in general were higher during Jordan's era, the rules and style of play were much different and Jordan's overall numbers benefited from him playing college ball before immediately becoming an NBA starter while Bryant jumped straight to the NBA from high school and thus needed some on the job training as a bench player.

The similarities between the players--in skill set, physique and demeanor--are striking and not just superficial. If Jordan had publicly called his teammates soft and then the next night his undermanned squad defeated the reigning NBA champions, the media would have exploded with paeans to Jordan's competitive greatness and how Jordan brings out the best in his teammates--but when Bryant does this he is mocked, media members predict that Bryant is going to shoot 50 times against the Spurs and then when the Lakers win the whole story disappears.

While some media members and fans may not understand or appreciate the rough edges of Bryant's personality, Kevin Durant, the 2014 NBA MVP, respects Bryant's approach and refutes the idea that good players do not want to play with Bryant:

Excuse my language, but that's (expletive). I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day...(His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff. I think (the accusation) is BS.

Durant admires the way that Bryant pushes his teammates to be better, a trait that Durant observed firsthand as Bryant's teammate while winning the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics:

Just his work ethic, just his demeanor man. He doesn't mind being an (expletive), and he comes to work man. He's intense. He demands a lot out of his teammates, and I've seen that just playing alongside him in the Olympics (in 2012). He demands a lot out of everybody. He makes them better. Everybody out on the court. You've got to respect that. As a player, I study guys like that. We might not have the same personality, but I think we approach the game the same way and I've learned a lot from just watching him.

Once one moves past comparing Bryant to Jordan and once one understands that any player with the right mindset would welcome the challenge and opportunity of playing with Bryant, one can focus on just how remarkable Bryant's current season is. Forget for a moment his career-low field goal percentage and consider the fact that Bryant is a highly productive player in his 19th NBA season. Only three players in NBA history have even made it past their 19th season: Robert Parish (21 seasons), Kevin Willis (21 seasons) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20 seasons). All three of those players are big men who could camp out in the post and did not have the responsibility of handling the ball full-court. Parish did not average more than 5 ppg after his 18th season. Willis was not a full-time starter or double figure scorer after his 14th season. Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most dominant centers in pro basketball history, did not average more than 25 ppg or more than 9 rpg after his 13th season; he made the All-Star team in his 19th, 20th and 21st seasons but he did not average more than 18 ppg or 7 rpg in any of those campaigns.

In contrast, during the 2014-15 season Bryant is logging heavy minutes (35.4 mpg), his floor game is still excellent (5.1 rpg, 4.9 apg and 1.4 spg, numbers that are comparable to his career averages of 5.3 rpg, 4.8 apg and 1.4 spg) and he is scoring 24.6 ppg. Bryant's field goal percentage (.372) is not good but he is remarkably productive and durable for a 19 year veteran who is coming off of two serious leg injuries. Bryant is in excellent shape and if his body holds up his field goal percentage will probably improve during the course of this season as he regains his game legs after being out of action for such an extended period.

No, Kobe Bryant is not quite as good as Michael Jordan and, no, Kobe Bryant is no longer as efficient or dominant as he was during his prime--or even during his last healthy full season, when he was a legitimate MVP-caliber player averaging 25.5 ppg on .463 field goal shooting (including a career-high .510 from two point range) as a 17 year NBA veteran--but Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan that we have seen or are likely to see anytime soon. Bryant's former dominance and his remarkable, ongoing longevity should be celebrated.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:02 AM


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Friday, December 12, 2014

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" Makes its ESPN Classic Debut Tonight!

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" will air on ESPN Classic tonight starting at 10:30 p.m. Producer Ted Green's labor of love--a film about a great basketball player who triumphed despite being deprived of the opportunity to play pro ball during a significant portion of his prime years--is gripping, heartwarming and heartbreaking. It should be appointment viewing for any serious basketball fan.

"Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" made its Dayton, Ohio debut in August, 2013. Dayton, my hometown, is where Roger Brown played freshman ball for the University of Dayton and where he excelled for several years on the AAU circuit before signing with the ABA's Indiana Pacers. Brown's spectacular clutch shooting helped the Pacers win three ABA titles and earned him the respect of several of the greatest players of all-time: Julius Erving, George Gervin and Rick Barry spoke very highly of Brown when I interviewed them more than a decade ago and asked if they thought that Brown deserved to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Brown's long overdue Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement took place in 2013.  Brown did not live long enough to enjoy that honor but his name and his accomplishments are inextricably interwoven with the history of the Pacers, the ABA and pro basketball as a whole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM


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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Assessing Kobe Bryant as a Lion in Winter

Kobe Bryant's 31 point, 12 assist, 11 rebound stat line in the L.A. Lakers' 129-122 overtime victory over the East-leading Toronto Raptors on Sunday night would be special for any player at any time--but those numbers have added meaning for Bryant; he not only notched his 20th career triple double but he became the oldest player in NBA history to drop 30-10-10 in a game and he became the first player in pro basketball history to accumulate at least 30,000 career points and at least 6000 career assists. Earlier this season, Bryant became just the fifth different player in the past 30 years who posted at least 39 points and at least nine rebounds in a game at the age of 36 or older (Michael Jordan accomplished this three times, Karl Malone did it twice and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal did it once each).

Bryant is on pace to become the oldest scoring champion in pro basketball history--and he is doing this while some of the most prolific scorers in the league are in their prime years, including LeBron James (27.5 ppg career scoring average, third in pro basketball history) and Carmelo Anthony (25.2 ppg career scoring average, 11th in pro basketball history). Bryant is also tenth in minutes per game (35.9 mpg) this season and he is averaging more steals per game than top notch defenders LeBron James and Luol Deng.

Bryant is attempting a career-high nine free throws a game and on a per minute basis his rebounds, assists and turnovers are all right around his career norms. He is still a very skilled player and he is remarkably effective considering his age, his mileage and his recent injury history. Despite all the positive things that Bryant is doing, the statistics that are attracting the most media attention are his career-low shooting percentages from the field (.392) and the free throw line (.783), plus his 23.1 field goal attempts per game. Bryant is being criticized for shooting so frequently and so poorly. Those are valid concerns but it is important to remember that he is less than 20 games into what--presumably and hopefully--will be his first full season since the 2012-13 campaign after suffering a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture. Bryant is a 36 year old, 19 veteran who has essentially been out of action for nearly two years after overcoming potentially career-ending injuries but instead of being praised for his work ethic and his all-around skill set, much of the commentary around Bryant focuses on the size of his contract and how he is supposedly destroying the franchise that he helped lead to five championships since 2000. There are plenty of franchises that would like to be "destroyed" the way that Bryant has "destroyed" the Lakers--and the Lakers did not exactly tear up the league during Bryant's absence last season.

Like most older player who have dealt with injuries, Bryant will struggle to match the field goal percentage that he posted during his prime years--but the same media members who are killing Bryant just a few games into his comeback put James Harden on the All-NBA First Team last season despite Harden's .405 field goal percentage and abysmal defense. If Harden is supposedly a top five player in the league while shooting poorly and playing defense like a turnstile then how can it be true that Bryant--aging, coming off of two major injuries and surrounded by a conspicuous lack of talent--is as bad as his very vocal critics suggest?

We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant that carried Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to consecutive postseason  appearances and nearly beat the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the 2006 playoffs. We are not seeing the Kobe Bryant who led the Lakers to back to back championships after the first time that he supposedly destroyed the Lakers by allegedly chasing away Shaquille O'Neal. Those Kobe Bryants had younger, healthier legs and could carry a team not just for a game but for a month, a playoff series, an entire season. However, this Kobe Bryant is capping off a great career by showing that even an older player whose wheels have been damaged can still use guile, skills and toughness to compete with the best players in the world's best basketball league. He is not shortchanging the Lakers, himself or the fans and he should be praised for the approach that he is taking and the determination that he is demonstrating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:01 AM


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Friday, November 14, 2014

LeBron James' Rescinded Phony Triple Double is a Symptom of a Larger Problem

Intelligent NBA observers know that there are serious problems with the accuracy/meaningfulness of box score numbers, which by definition means that the so-called "advanced basketball statistics" that are cherished by "stat gurus" are also deeply flawed. Box score numbers are not only devoid of context--points scored by a bench player during garbage time of a blowout game count the same as points scored in the fourth quarter of a close game that will decide which team wins a division title--but they often are just flat out wrong. Faulty scorekeeping is a serious NBA problem; when I have charted Chris Paul's assists I have consistently found that he is credited with more assists than he deserves--and it is perhaps most telling that I have never found an instance when a player was not credited with an assist that should have been recorded. The scorekeeping errors only happen in one direction (i.e., padding totals as opposed to depriving players of assists that they rightfully earned) and I am not convinced that this is primarily "home cooking," though that may play a part. NBA scorekeeping is either inherently sloppy or else there is a bias toward artificially inflating the numbers of certain players, perhaps with the intention of comparing today's stars favorably with stars from previous eras by making it seem as if today's stars are setting records that they are not really setting.

The latest publicly acknowledged example of NBA scorekeeping gone bad took place on Monday, when LeBron James supposedly posted 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 118-111 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Upon further review, the NBA removed one rebound and one assist from James' totals. Both scorekeeping errors occurred during one continuous sequence: the incorrectly tallied rebound happened when a missed shot bounced off of James' hands into the hands of his teammate Tristan Thompson, who controlled the ball and should have been credited with the rebound. Thompson then made an outlet pass that resulted--after many dribbles--in a Kyrie Irving fastbreak layup. No assist should have been awarded on that play but instead the scorekeeper gave James an assist, which makes about as much sense as giving Mark Price an assist on the play.

One can dismiss this as "home cooking" or say that Cleveland's official scorekeeper just had a bad night but the reality is that egregious errors regarding LeBron James' box score numbers do not only happen in Cleveland. This is the second phony LeBron James triple double that the NBA has corrected, with the first one happening in Madison Square Garden on February 4, 2009. Scorekeepers would not be making such obvious mistakes unless this kind of box score padding is an accepted practice. The NBA claims that it regularly checks game film to make sure that the box score statistics are accurate but--in light of the numerous uncorrected box score mistakes that I have found in just a handful of Chris Paul's games--it seems more likely that the only reason LeBron James' phony triple doubles were rescinded is that observers outside of the NBA publicly called attention to these outlandish mistakes. Meanwhile, routine errors that are not publicized become part of the sport's historical and statistical record.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 PM


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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

2014-15 Western Conference Preview

The opening sentence of my 2013-14 Western Conference Preview could not have been more prophetic: "The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's 21st century version of Rasputin: just when you think that they are dead and gone, they prove that they still have a lot of life left." The Spurs bounced back from their devastating loss in the 2013 NBA Finals to beat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals and earn the fifth championship of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014). Duncan now enjoys a 2-1 head to head advantage versus LeBron James in the NBA Finals and Duncan owns three more championship rings than James does. Duncan has never been as statistically dominant individually as James is and Duncan has not been the Finals MVP during the Spurs' most recent two title runs but numbers do not fully capture Duncan's impact as a defensive stopper in the paint, a low post offensive hub (who can also step outside and hit midrange jumpers) and a true champion who has been an outstanding leader from day one. Duncan long ago made a strong case to be considered the greatest power forward of all-time and I tapped him as a Pantheon level player six years ago but because of his soft spoken demeanor and the fact that he has never posted gaudy statistics it seems like his greatness may never be fully appreciated.

The Spurs stood pat this offseason and they have every reason to believe that their core nucleus of Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is good enough to make yet another title run. Their chief rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder, will have to survive for a significant period of time without Kevin Durant, who has won four of the past five scoring titles. This could be an opportunity for Russell Westbrook to shine a la Scottie Pippen in 1994 and Kobe Bryant in 2003; Pippen and Bryant were wrongly considered to be mere sidekicks until retirement (Michael Jordan) and injury (Shaquille O'Neal) respectively enabled them to demonstrate that they were in fact legitimate MVP caliber players in their own right. Bryant went on a scoring binge in O'Neal's absence and some people may expect Westbrook to try to do the same thing but I think that--while Westbrook will likely bump up his scoring a bit--he will focus on showcasing his all-around game and prove that he can be the best player on an elite team, much like Pippen did when he led the Jordan-less Bulls to a 55-27 record in 1993-94.

This preview has the same format as the Eastern Conference Preview that I posted yesterday; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).

1) San Antonio Spurs: The Duncan/Popovich Spurs have put together a unique dynasty spanning a decade and a half: they always win 50-plus games, they almost always seriously contend for the championship, they have won five titles--but they have never won back to back titles and they have never fielded a particular squad that would rank among the 10 best single season teams in pro basketball history. Other basketball dynasties have been shorter-lived and captured fewer championships but many of those dynasties either won back to back titles or else notched one season of exceptional dominance. The Spurs' dynasty has been interrupted by--and ultimately outlasted--two distinct Lakers' dynasties that claimed three straight championships and two straight championships respectively. It would be foolish to expect anything less than 50-plus regular season wins and another deep playoff run from the Spurs.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder: "Stat gurus" will insist that James Harden's departure has held back the Thunder and possibly even cost them at least one championship but the truth is that during their first two seasons sans Harden the Thunder have posted the franchise's two best winning percentages since 1998. The Thunder's problem has been that they have not been able to keep their core trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka healthy during the postseason. The Thunder were right to jettison Harden and keep Ibaka but they will never win a championship if they do not have those three players operating at a peak level in May/June. This season is already off to an ominous start even before opening night, as Durant is expected to miss extensive time due to a foot injury. Westbrook will more than hold down the fort in Durant's absence during the regular season and Thunder fans can only hope that come playoff time Durant is in peak form.

3) L.A. Clippers: I have long maintained that Chris Paul will never be the best player on a championship team; Isiah Thomas is the only 6-foot and under player (don't believe the listed heights for Paul or Thomas) who was the best player on an NBA championship team and even though Paul's mindset is very similar to Thomas' there is just some element (besides the obvious element of durability) that Paul is missing. The loophole here, of course, is that Paul could still win a title with the Clippers. After all, during Paul's absence last season we saw that Blake Griffin is hardly dependent on Paul to be a great player and that Griffin is in fact the Clippers' best player. The Clippers do not have quite enough to beat San Antonio or Oklahoma City at full strength but if those teams suffer some key injuries the Clippers could very well win the West.

4) Golden State Warriors: Coach Mark Jackson did an outstanding job building a winning culture in Golden State but he lost favor with management and was shown the door. New Coach Steve Kerr will try to keep Jackson's defense intact while adding some offensive creativity. The Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson backcourt is dynamic and if the Warriors get productivity from Andrew Bogut and David Lee upfront then they will be a very scary team during the playoffs.

5) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing tied for the fourth best record in the tough Western Conference. I don't like the word "overachieve" but let's just say I do not expect Portland to exceed what they accomplished in 2014. This is a good, solid playoff team but not a championship contender.

6) Dallas Mavericks: I am not sure why the New York Knicks were so eager to run Tyson Chandler out of town but the defensive anchor for Dallas' 2011 championship team still has at least a little left in the tank. Chandler Parsons will provide a major offensive boost. If Dirk Nowitzki were a couple years younger, I would rank Dallas as a top three team in the West but Nowitzki is not quite the player he used to be.

7) Houston Rockets: Daryl Morey became Houston's General Manager in 2007. In the past seven seasons, they have missed the playoffs three times while advancing past the first round just once. "Stat gurus" love to criticize traditional-minded NBA GMs and make fun of their roster moves and mock them for failing to take advantage of "advanced basketball statistics." How long, exactly, is it supposed to take for the allegedly immense advantages supplied by the use of those statistics to have an impact on the bottom line win/loss statistic? If a traditional-minded NBA GM had taken over in Houston seven years ago and posted the exact same record that Morey's teams have posted, you can bet that the "stat gurus" in the media would be firing potshots at him. I don't think that Morey is necessarily a bad GM but the idea that he deserves credit for swinging for the fences is a bit tiresome. The Rockets have swung, repeatedly, but all of their roster moves have yet to result in creating a team that is likely to advance past the first round.

8) Memphis Grizzlies: Meet the next Houston Rockets. The Grizzlies were on the verge of championship contention less than two years ago. Then they decided to go all-in with "advanced basketball statistics." That led to a first round exit last season and will likely lead to a first round exit this season. Be prepared to read many stories this season about just how forward-thinking the team's front office is, despite the fact that the team figures to be backward-moving in the standings.

There has been a lot of noise about Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers recently. I wish that I had the time to delve into that subject in depth but I will have to settle for just making a few quick observations:

1) No one should put much stock in an article written by someone with no credibility who can only support his weak thesis with anonymous quotes.

2) Whether or not Bryant's teammates have enjoyed every minute that they spent with him, a large number of those teammates enjoyed career years playing alongside him. That group ranges from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol) to the somewhat less than sublime (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker).

3) Do you think that it is terrible for a player to publicly call his teammates "sissies" during the NBA Finals and for that same player to announce during a regular season game huddle that if his teammates don't want to play hard then they should just stand on the weak side while he shoots the ball every time? If so, then you don't think much of Larry Bird's leadership techniques. What about punching a teammate in the face during practice and riding other teammates so hard to test their toughness that he basically ran some guys off of the squad, if not out of the league entirely? If those leadership techniques don't strike your fancy then you must not like Michael Jordan very much.

Let's be real. Julius Erving and David Robinson won pro basketball championships while being genuinely nice guys on and off of the court--but many of pro basketball's greatest players were not always nice to be around on a day in, day out basis. The difference is that media members liked Larry Bird and Michael Jordan--and, in an earlier era, they liked Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle enough to cover up their off-field excesses. We live in a different era now. Media members are not awestruck by pro athletes, nor do they get to ride on the same planes, trains and automobiles with them. Many media members are jealous or incompetent or just like to write/say provocative things. In 2006, Team USA had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony and laid an egg. Then, in 2008 Team USA added Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd and reestablished Team USA's FIBA dominance. Now, media members take potshots at Bryant and Kidd night and day. Bryant and Kidd are not close to being perfect human beings but it is strange to question their basketball leadership abilities and I take anything that the media says about them (and any other subject) with a huge grain of salt.

4) The 2014-15 Lakers essentially have traded Mike D'Antoni and Pau Gasol for Byron Scott, Kobe Bryant and Carlos Boozer. The Lakers are not a great team or even a very good one but they won 27 games last season and if Bryant stays healthy it is not absurd to think that they could win 30-plus games this season.

5) Bryant is getting old and he is coming off of two serious injuries. I don't think that his skills have declined dramatically but they have declined and the reality is that he probably will not play more than 60-65 games this season. Pencil him in for 25 ppg, expect the Lakers to be at least somewhat competitive when he plays and expect the Lakers to look pretty bad when he does not play.



I correctly picked six of the eight 2014 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2014 Total: 57/72 (.792)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 PM


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Monday, October 20, 2014

2014-15 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest story entering the 2014-15 NBA season is LeBron James' return to Cleveland. James' arrival transforms the Cavaliers into a legitimate championship contender and relegates the Miami Heat to, at best, second tier playoff status. When James fled Cleveland for the sunny shores of Miami, he had not yet fully developed a championship mentality nor had his jump shot or postup game completely evolved. In Miami, James learned what it takes to be a champion and he led the Heat to two titles and four NBA Finals appearances in four seasons. Barring a serious, career-threatening or career-ending injury, the 29 year old 11 season NBA veteran likely has at least three or four elite years left in the tank and perhaps another three or four high level campaigns after that. If James is surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he can keep the Cavaliers at or near the top of the league until past 2020.

Perhaps the two next biggest Eastern Conference stories revolve around one returning superstar and one departing star: Injuries have limited Chicago's Derrick Rose, the 2011 regular season MVP, to just 49 regular season games in the past three years. If Rose can regain elite status and maintain his health, Chicago should be the best team in the East. Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, who posted the Eastern Conference's best regular season record in 2013-14 before falling to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, lost All-Star Paul George to a season-ending leg injury and lost valuable--but volatile--swingman Lance Stephenson to free agency. After making back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers will be fighting just to make the playoffs as opposed to having realistic hopes of winning a championship.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which teams win division titles).

1) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls finished with the third best record in the East last season and have now added a healthy Derrick Rose plus free agent signee Pau Gasol to the roster. They released Carlos Boozer. The obvious key to the Bulls' championship aspirations is Rose's health. As long as Coach Tom Thibodeau is around, the Bulls will be an outstanding defensive team that annually qualifies for the playoffs but Rose gives the Bulls the necessary offensive spark and superstar dynamic that can put them over the top. Gasol has never been a rugged player but he is a legit seven footer who will add offensive punch and rebounding plus valuable size as a rim protector alongside Joakim Noah. Gasol has yet to win a single playoff game in his career without playing alongside Kobe Bryant but he is ideally suited to being the third best Chicago player behind Rose and Noah. If Rose plays at least 70 games at a high level, the Bulls will win 55-60 games and be a very tough out in the playoffs.

2) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers have been terrible for the past few years not just because LeBron James left but also because the franchise gutted the front office, the coaching staff and the rest of the roster that helped James lead the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and to the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010. James picked a good time to return home, because the Cavaliers have finally rebuilt a legitimate NBA roster. Kevin Love is a scoring and rebounding machine who is also a good passer, though his defense is questionable. Kyrie Irving, the 2014 All-Star MVP, looks like he will be a perennial All-Star. Anderson Varejao has been hobbled by injuries since James left town but he is a high energy player who is an excellent screen/roll partner for James. James is the best player in the league, while Irving and Love could easily both be top 10 players if they are healthy and motivated. James is wise to publicly dampen expectations as opposed to promising to win "Not one, not two..." championships but the Cavaliers have both talent and depth. The two question marks for this team are coaching and defense. Rookie Coach Dave Blatt has had a brilliant FIBA coaching career but now he is in the big leagues and he will face a steep learning curve while undergoing tremendous media scrutiny. Can he devise a championship level defensive scheme for the Cavaliers and can he get Love, Irving and the rest of James' teammates to buy into that scheme? James is an elite defender, though he has slipped just a bit at that end of the court, but NBA defense requires five players to react as one and it requires a good game plan that is well executed.

3) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors surprised me and many other people last season. I fully expected that General Manager Masai Ujiri would turn the team around but I did not expect the Raptors to make the playoffs last year. Toronto lost a tough seven game first round series to Brooklyn but the Raptors have a young nucleus led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and they figure to make a deeper postseason run in 2015.

4) Washington Wizards: Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a young squad that went further than many people expected in 2014. I predicted that Washington would sneak into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference but I was surprised that they made it past the first round. The John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt is very dynamic and Washington's frontcourt size causes a lot of matchup problems.

5) Miami Heat: Without LeBron James, the Heat will not make a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. That is obvious--but what may not be obvious to casual fans is that the cupboard is not completely bare. Chris Bosh sacrificed a lot of his individual game in order to help the Heat be successful but he is a top notch postup threat who can score from anywhere on the floor while also being a major factor as a rebounder and defender. If the Heat coaching staff uses Bosh the right way and Bosh accepts the challenge, Bosh can once again be a 20-10 player and the Heat can win at least 45 games. What about Dwyane Wade? The most that can reasonably be expected from him at this stage of his career is 50-60 games played, decent offense, bad defense and random cheap shots delivered to opposing players. Wade is an undersized shooting guard who has always relied on his formidable athletic ability, so the back end of his career will not be kind to him; he is not going to suddenly become 6-6, nor is he going to suddenly become a consistent postup threat or a consistent jump shooter.

6) Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are an aging, overhyped team. Last year, while many people touted them as a serious threat to dethrone the Heat, I picked them to finish fourth in the weak Eastern Conference. The Nets ended up fifth, though they did have some transitory glory by winning a game seven on the road versus Toronto in the first round before being smashed 4-1 by the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Paul Pierce is gone, Kevin Garnett is running on fumes, Deron Williams apparently left his game in Utah and Joe Johnson is a solid All-Star caliber player but not a superstar who can carry a team to a title. Jason Kidd did the best that he could in his rookie season as a head coach--enduring some unfair and uninformed media criticism along the way--but he lost a power play with management and was replaced by Lionel Hollins, who was foolishly chased away by Memphis two years ago. Hollins will maximize this team's potential but all that amounts to is a first round exit.

7) Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan has hardly covered himself in glory as an NBA executive/NBA owner but the Hornets made serious strides last season. Al Jefferson is a low post beast, Steve Clifford turned out to be a surprisingly good coach in his first season and the Hornets made the playoffs just two years after posting the worst record in NBA history. The ceiling for this current roster is well short of legitimate championship contention but there is no reason to think that they cannot once again win 40-plus games and qualify for the playoffs.

8) Indiana Pacers: Yes, the Pacers lost arguably their two best players. Yes, the Pacers face planted down the stretch in the regular season before regaining their bearings and advancing through the weak Eastern Conference playoffs to what once had seemed to be an inevitable showdown with the Heat. Yes, many people criticize Coach Frank Vogel's decisions and Larry Bird's player moves. So why do I still think that the Pacers will qualify for the playoffs? You may have noticed a recurring theme in this article: the Eastern Conference is weak (even though Chicago and Cleveland are legit title contenders). Who am I supposed to select over the Pacers? The dysfunctional Knicks? The dysfunctional Hawks? Some other dysfunctional team? Maybe Phil Jackson will turn around the Knicks but right now the Knicks have a rookie head coach, an overrated best player and a motley cast of knuckleheads, has-beens and never weres. The Pacers have a proven defensive system, quality big men and a recent track record of playoff success. That should be enough for 42 or 43 wins, at least--and that should be just enough to edge out the four or five Eastern teams that will finish with between 30 and 40 wins.


I correctly picked six of the eight 2013-14 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2014 Total: 56/72 (.778)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:12 PM


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Monday, September 29, 2014

Julius Erving on Being a Role Model

"I projected in my story about always having the carrot out in front of me, that tomorrow is going to be the best day of my life, and hopefully I can make a difference tomorrow that I haven't been able to make today."--Julius Erving

In December 2013, Tavis Smiley spoke with Julius Erving about Erving's autobiography Dr. J. The wide-ranging conversation reflected Erving's typical depth of thought and abiding grace. Erving explained to Smiley how some mentors pointed him in the right direction at key moments, enabling him to in turn set a great example as a role model after he became an internationally famous athlete.

Here is that exchange, taken directly from the official interview transcript:

Tavis: So I’m watching you, and the one thing I noticed about you, even as a child, was your humility on the court. There is so much--speaking of football, there’s a lot of this in football, and even a lot of it in basketball, but people, athletes, will do something spectacular on the court or on the field, and it’s almost hard to resist doing a dance (laughter) or getting in somebody’s face.

With all the moves that you ever did, you would go to the hole, jump this way, jump this way, turn this way, flip back this way, left hand, right hand, back to the left hand, behind the backboard, put it in.

Whatever it is that you did, you would do it and just run right back down the court. I’ve never one time seen you get in somebody’s face, with all the gift and talent you had. So tell me about that humility. That’s more than just a word, it seems.

Erving: Yeah, the influences on your life, if I’ve been an influence on your life, then there might be a moment in which you get into a situation and you might say, “What would Julius do” or “What would Julius think,” “What would Mom think,” “What would Dad think.”

I had really good influences in my mom, first and foremost. The guy I was talking about from last night, Don Ryan, who was my first coach. The big three over in high school, Ray Wilson, Earl Mosley, Chuck Mcawane (sp), they always said, “Look, win without boasting and lose without crying.”

If you play sports, you’re going to lose sometimes, and I have cried, but I didn’t have control over the tears. But I’ve always had control over boasting, always, because boasting is something that emotions don’t make you do that.

You program your brain to do it, and sometimes when I see it, I crack up, because guys are just following other guys, saying, well, I’m going to make my dance funkier than his dance. (Laughter)

Or whatever, and I’m like, “Really?” So I don’t get too mad at it because I got kids and I got grandkids, and they’re part of that generation that celebrates the moment.

I had some coaches, like “We’re not celebrating unless we win the game.” The game is certainly not over in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, or through the fourth quarter. It’s not over till it’s over, and if it’s over and we win, we get on our bus and we can celebrate. But prior to that, I don’t want to see it.

Doing things the right way has always been of paramount importance to Erving. Erving's Philadelphia 76ers posted the best regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83 but he never scored more than 45 points in a single game for the 76ers; when his team had the game well in hand, Erving went to the bench instead of artificially inflating his individual statistics: Erving told me that it is "crass" for a player to pad his numbers if the outcome of the game has been decided. When I was a kid, I wished that Erving would play until the last minute and put up 50 points or more but upon further reflection I have gained appreciation for his approach; people who understand basketball know how great Erving was no matter how many 50 point games Erving rang up and the opinions of people who don't understand basketball just don't matter: greatness encompasses so much more than just compiling certain statistics or impressing particular influential commentators. When the Virginia Squires and New York Nets needed a young Erving to post dominant statistics, Erving did just that and when the 76ers asked Erving to blend into a team concept he sacrificed personal glory for group success--and when Coach Billy Cunningham realized that it was a mistake to ask the best player to tone his game down too much, Erving proved that his late 1970s critics had no idea what they were talking about!

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 PM


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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Drummond, Cousins Look To Take Next Step After FIBA Experience

Guest Article by Sam Holbein

Four years ago, much was made about the fact that nearly every player on the 2010 FIBA World Cup team wound up doing big things that fall in the NBA. Many agreed that the extra work against world-class talent helped players take that next step. Two very talented big men in the NBA are hoping that the same will hold true in 2014. DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond are two of the most talented young centers in the game, and they are getting valuable experience this summer.

Talent in the NBA is abundant, but these two still stand out in a crowd. They are both physically gifted in ways that few basketball players in the world are. Both were highly regarded out of high school and college, but they came with some red flags. Discipline has always been an issue, and maturity has been questioned at times as well. Cousins is the older of the two, and right now, he is more refined. That has led to more significant minutes in the FIBA World Cup so far. It is very likely that the United States will count on him quite a bit if they face Spain in the championship game. The Spaniards have a lot of size to throw at Team USA, but Cousins is as big and as talented as any of them.

People in fantasy basketball are more than pleased with Cousins’ output at this time. He is someone who is more highly regarded when just looking at his statistics. There has been a lot of losing in Sacramento, and some of the blame has been put on Cousins’ lack of leadership qualities. Now 24 and around a bunch of other talented players, perhaps he can step things up for the Kings in 2014-2015.

As for Drummond, he seems to briefly show flashes of brilliance at times. He is one of the most physically gifted NBA players in the game, but he still needs to refine his game. He has no jumpshot to speak of, and his free-throw shooting is atrocious. As long as he stays within himself, he is worth going after in fantasy basketball because he is a double-double machine.

Drummond might not be playing as much in the World Cup, but he is still practicing with some of the best in the world. With Stan Van Gundy now the head coach in Detroit, it is time for Drummond to take things up another level. His hard work this summer could make him an All-Star sooner rather than later in the Eastern Conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:52 PM


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Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier" Captures the Essence of an Indiana Sports Icon

Ted Green, whose documentary "Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story" vividly portrayed the accomplishments, triumphs and struggles of one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history, has now produced another compelling documentary about an Indiana sports icon: "Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier" is a 90 minute journey depicting how a boy who literally grew up on the wrong side of the tracks became an elite college basketball player before averaging 9.9 ppg in a seven year pro basketball career that helped prepare him to become a championship-winning coach.

Younger fans who know Leonard primarily for his famous "Boom Baby" calls during Indiana Pacers' radio broadcasts may only be dimly aware that Leonard coached the Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and they almost certainly do not realize that Leonard was a basketball legend long before the ABA existed. Leonard was a high school star in Indiana and after receiving dozens of scholarship offers--including one from reigning NCAA champion Kentucky--he stayed in his home state to play for Indiana University. He averaged 16.3 ppg (second on the team) during the 1952-53 season and played a major role as the Hoosiers won the 1953 NCAA Championship. Leonard was a great leader, a superb floor general and someone who brought a spirit of camaraderie to every team for which he played or coached.

The extended trailer of "Bobby 'Slick' Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier showcases Leonard's deadly outside shooting touch, details his exploits during the Indiana University's 1953 NCAA title run and describes how he both built and saved the Indiana Pacers franchise but what comes through most of all is that--beneath the fiery surface of his fierce competitiveness--Leonard is loyal and compassionate, grateful to his mentors and a willing mentor to others.

Leonard was not only a talented player in his own right but even early in his career he also had an eye for talent in others. Leonard met fellow future Hall of Famer Sam Jones when they both served in the military and Leonard suggested to Jones that he consider a career in pro basketball, something that--by Jones' own admission in an interview with Green--Jones had not thought about at all prior to meeting Leonard. Jones eventually won 10 championship rings with the Boston Celtics, more than any other player in pro basketball history except for his teammate Bill Russell, who captured 11 championship rings. When I interviewed Leonard more than a decade ago, he told me that Jones is the most underrated guard in NBA history. Leonard's insights enriched several of my articles, including Classic Confrontations: Boston vs. St. Louis and James "Captain Late" Silas Commanded Respect in the Clutch, but one of the best tips that Leonard gave me never made it into print because I did not have my own website at the time and did not yet have the opportunity to write any playoff preview articles: in the spring of 2004, Leonard told me that he expected the Detroit Pistons to win the NBA championship, even though his beloved Indiana Pacers--and several Western Conference teams, including the star-studded L.A. Lakers--would finish with a better regular season record. Leonard believed that Larry Brown's coaching, combined with the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace, would push Detroit over the top and he was right on the mark.

It is not surprising that Leonard recognized the Pistons' potential before most people did; he was a masterful basketball strategist whose Pacers posted a 6-2 record in seven game playoff series. Leonard so enjoyed his time with the Pacers that he turned down an opportunity to coach his alma mater, a job that eventually went to Bobby Knight. Leonard told Green that this worked out best for all parties concerned.

Leonard did not have much of a real opportunity to demonstrate his coaching chops in the NBA; he only coached for one and a half seasons in the NBA before his ABA tenure and he spent just four seasons with the cash-strapped Pacers after the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. Leonard has called games for the Pacers' radio network for nearly three decades and he is still a fixture courtside in Indiana, though his health no longer permits him to make road trips.

Leonard's Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement was long overdue but at least it happened in time for Leonard to enjoy that special moment with his family and friends. It is also wonderful and fitting that Green's documentary first aired shortly before the Hall of Fame ceremony took place. My life path does not currently enable me to write about basketball as much as I used to but I am so happy that the Hall of Fame's doors have finally, belatedly opened to several of the legends who I wrote so passionately about in the past 10 years, including Slick Leonard, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown. ESPN, TNT, Slam and many other major media outlets have consistently dropped the ball regarding the ABA's significance in general and the specific accomplishments of those individuals but in the end justice has been done and that is what matters most. Green deserves much credit for persevering with his documentary work; PBS benefits from what he has done, while ESPN and TNT are that much poorer for not providing a wider audience for a top notch filmmaker who has brought attention to Roger Brown and Slick Leonard despite the NBA's efforts to flush ABA statistics, records and oral history down Orwell's proverbial memory hole.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM


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Saturday, August 09, 2014

Bobby "Slick" Leonard Remembers the ABA During his Basketball Hall of Fame Speech

On Friday night, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrined Bobby "Slick" Leonard, who played on Indiana's 1953 NCAA championship team and enjoyed a seven year NBA career before coaching the ABA's Indiana Pacers to three league championships (1970, 1972-73). It is so wonderful to see Leonard finally, belatedly receive this long-overdue honor and it is great that he was able to share this moment with his beautiful family. I cannot offer enough praise for Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo, who played an integral role in forming the Hall of Fame's ABA Committee that inducted Artis Gilmore plus Leonard's Indiana Pacers' stars Mel Daniels and Roger Brown prior to selecting Leonard this year.

Leonard's Hall of Fame speech lasted nearly 27 minutes and touched upon his basketball career from his childhood days up to his still ongoing broadcasting career. He mentioned the four Hall of Fame players who he coached: Walt Bellamy, Gus Johnson, Roger Brown and Mel Daniels. The most meaningful segment for me is when he spoke, lovingly and with great passion, about the ABA. Here are some quotes from that portion of the speech:

"We had some great times in the ABA...They talk about the ABA like we were a minor league to the NBA. Well, I played in the NBA and that's not true. If you want to go back and look at the players we ended up with in the ABA before the merger, you're looking at Moses Malone, you're looking at the Iceman--George Gervin--you're looking at Dr. J--Julius Erving. I can go on, Dan Issel--by the time the merger came, and David (Stern) was there then, we had the players and they needed our players as bad as we needed them, 'cause we'd gone broke...I had a frontline with the Pacers--and I've seen them all, all the frontlines that have come down the pike in the last 60 years or so--with Mel Daniels in the middle, George McGinnis at one forward and Roger Brown at the other forward. Those guys could have competed against any frontline that I've seen. Those were great, fun days. I had that frontline and in the backcourt I had Freddie Lewis, Donnie Freeman, Billy Keller, Tommy Thacker. Backing up the guys up front I had Darnell Hillman and Bob Netolicky."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM


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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview With Gene Jones, Developer of Triviation

LeBron James possesses breathtaking physical skills but he did not win a championship until he mastered the mental game. This critical element for success has always fascinated me and I have written many articles on the subject, including my review of Garret Kramer's book Stillpower: Your Inner Source of Excellence in Sports--and Life.

Gene Jones, developer of the Triviation method to "activate breakthrough thinking," believes that honing one's mental/psychological game is important in many aspects of life, including sports:

Hall of Fame baseball player and legendary wordsmith Yogi Berra famously said "90% of this game is 50% mental." While the math of this statement doesn't add up, it points to a vital aspect of sports and athletic competition.     

Although the games we play and watch are visibly physical, the key to success in sports is based on mental preparation and approach. Whether you are a sports hobbyist or a top professional athlete, the mental component of sports is what differentiates those who are continually frustrated from those who succeed. It almost always determines the outcome between two opponents who are fundamentally "evenly matched."

This means that breakthrough thinking is an essential element in all sports endeavors. How many times has it been said that an individual athlete or team "just has to get over the hump" to win a championship, or that one athlete or team has the "mental edge" over another?

I recently conducted a brief email interview with Mr. Jones. His unedited answers to my questions are set apart in italics.

Q: In what ways are your ideas about "flow"influenced by and/or complementary with the work done by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi?

Mihály was a pioneer in this field. When I read his work a number of years ago, I had already formulated many of my views on "flow" states. Reading his work was important confirmation of the conclusions I had arrived at.

Q: Which athletes have you worked with and/or observed who best exemplify the kind of "breakthrough thinking" that you recommend to achieve peak performance? What is a good, specific example of how one of those athletes employed such techniques effectively?

I hesitate to single out any athletes in this regard because I do not know what thought processes they have used.

Q: Are you familiar with Tim Grover's work? My interview with him can be found here: Interview with Tim Grover, Author of Relentless. Do you see a downside to the kind of focus and intensity that is necessary to achieve a high level of success in a given field, perhaps in terms of sacrifices one has to make in other areas of one's life?

There is a downside to any endeavor that is pursued with overwhelming intensity, as other aspects of life are often overlooked. The key word here is finding some balance while also being laser focused on a lofty goal.

To me, the truly successful person is one who reaches a high level of success while also maintaining a balanced and full existence. It is important not to let passion for any one aspect of life run wild and trample the rest of your life. This is true for any field of endeavor--not just sports.

Q: What is the biggest mistake that earnest competitors make when trying to maximize their potential?

There is no single biggest mistake. I like to evaluate each circumstance as an individual challenge.

Q: Do you believe in the concept of "choking" as the opposite of "flow"? If so, how would you define choking and how can one best prevent it?

This question opens up a whole world of its own. Saying that an athlete "choked" is one of the most nasty comments a person can make. Deciding as to whether a person choked or not can often be a subjective judgment. Simply put, choking is the opposite of being "clutch," but it is more than that. Someone who chokes is having an emotional crisis that prevents him/her from performing up to his/her capabilities. Simply missing a shot at the buzzer, or not getting a hit in a critical point of a baseball game, is not necessarily a "choke." Even a great athlete in a "flow" state can miss a shot or hit the ball directly at a fielder, etc. In my opinion, the only time that failure reaches the level of choking is when it is clear that the athlete is emotionally gnarled up and therefore not functioning properly. At that point, it becomes a "nervous condition" that needs to be treated. I would also take a serious look at that athlete's preparation process to see if improving the preparation can relieve the insecurity.

Q: Is there a specific, important idea or concept that I have not mentioned that you would like to share with my readers?

You have asked some good questions. I like to be of assistance to others in any way I can by either answering questions and/or analyzing specific situations. There are always more important ideas and concepts to explore. In fact, I am writing a whole book to try and encompass some of them. But it is difficult to answer such a wide open question as this. To use a baseball metaphor, this question makes me feel like a batter who is trying to pitch to himself...I'm trying to be on the mound at the same time I am in the batter's box.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 PM


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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fully Evolved LeBron James Returns to Cleveland

When LeBron James left Cleveland four years ago, he was a great player--the best regular season player in the game--but his on-court game still contained flaws (including an inconsistent outside shot, the reluctance to post up and an incomplete understanding of what it takes to lead a team to a championship) and his off-court game betrayed a lack of maturity: he would be the first to admit now that the "Decision" was poorly thought out/executed and that the subsequent preseason victory party in Miami displayed a staggering combination of hubris and naivete; it is not easy to win "Not one, not two, not three, etc." championships nor is it prudent to boast about the inevitability of doing so before playing a single game with a new team and right after quitting in his most recent playoff series.

Spending four years in Miami changed James. He finally added an outside shot and a post up game to his repertoire, he learned that the best player must assert himself as the best player--and not defer to anyone else--and he figured out the paradoxical truth that understanding how difficult it is to win a championship makes it easier to win a championship. The latter point is perhaps the most important one: if you think that it is easy to win a championship then you will take shortcuts in your preparation, you will be overconfident against opponents who you perceive to be inferior and you will be inclined to quit when things become difficult--because you never expected things to become difficult and thus you are not prepared mentally, psychologically and physically to rise to the challenge. Think of George Foreman versus Muhammad Ali; most of the world thought that Foreman was invincible and Foreman bought into the hype, so when Ali took Foreman's best punches for several rounds and then asked Foreman if that was all he had, Foreman realized that he had nothing left. In his worst playoff performances at the highest levels of competition, James looked like Foreman: an imposing figure physically who was outsmarted and defeated by wily, tough opponents.

James' explanation for why he is returning to Cleveland is mature and measured; he hit all of the right notes, said all of the right things and showed that he has shed himself of the hubris and naivete he displayed to the world four years ago.  He wisely declared, "I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver." James set a confident but not brash or defiant tone. He is the best player in the NBA and he can reasonably expect to win at least one more championship if he plays up to his potential while being surrounded by a competent supporting cast--but nothing is guaranteed.

James' closing remarks are touching and, if backed up by sincere actions, will profoundly affect many lives and perhaps be a positive influence on other elite athletes:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

One part of James' essay sounds insincere, though: "I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there." Was he lying when he stated his goal to win eight championships (he stopped at "not seven" in his premature Miami "victory speech" four years ago) in Miami or is he lying now when he says that returning to Cleveland was always part of his plan? I am sure that after Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert blasted James and Cleveland fans burned James' jersey the last thought in James' mind was returning to Cleveland. When James went to Miami, he thought that joining forces with two stars in their primes would create an unstoppable team that would win more championships than the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Bulls. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took minor pay cuts--accepting slightly less than the maximum--but the three stars really did not leave too much cash left on the table to build a supporting cast; they collaborated to build the Heat and they figured that they could win multiple titles while playing alongside spare parts and castoffs. Wade was thrilled to be joined by two stars in Miami, Bosh was happy to be the third wheel and James naively believed that all that was missing in Cleveland was the star power that he had helped assemble in Miami. After the debacle in the 2011 NBA Finals, James realized that he cannot escape the fact that the responsibility to win a championship lies firmly on his shoulders: yes, Michael Jordan passed to John Paxson and Steve Kerr when the situation warranted but Jordan also did work in the first 47 minutes of those games to force teams to trap him; Jordan never stood around passively, expecting someone else to do the heavy lifting the way that James did against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals and against Boston in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. James is a dominant scorer, like Jordan and like Kobe Bryant, but until James arrived in Miami he lacked the inclination/complete skill set necessary to consistently be a dominant scorer against elite teams in championship level competition.

If Wade had not declined so precipitously, I doubt that James would have left Miami. Now that James understands how difficult it is to win a championship, he realizes that it is important to surround himself with young, athletic players to provide a cushion for when his formidable physical gifts begin to fade (though James' game will likely not fall apart the way that Wade's has, because James not only has a more well-rounded skill set than Wade but James is also much bigger than Wade, an important--though underrated at times--factor in NBA greatness/longevity). Vowing to return home not just to reward Cleveland's long-suffering fans with a championship but also to exert a positive influence beyond the basketball court is a pledge that cannot be criticized--but I do not believe for one second that this is part of some master plan hatched in 2010. James left Cleveland for what he presumed to be greener pastures, he experienced great success--though not as much success as he expected--and now he is making a decision (no capital letters, no premature victory parties this time) based on a combination of financial, social and basketball factors. Take note that James signed a two year max deal with Cleveland, with an option to leave after one year; James says that he is fully committed to stay in Cleveland long term and, based on a variety of considerations, it is a shrewd business decision to leave his options open--but James is also giving himself an escape hatch. James has every right to do so, but let's not pretend that his return to Cleveland is primarily motivated by altruistic concerns; he left Cleveland in the lurch four years ago and he just abandoned his "band of brothers" in Miami, so there is every reason to believe that leaving Cleveland after one year is not just a theoretical possibility but also a bargaining tool/threat that James will use to maximum effect. Is James loyal because he is coming back to Cleveland or does he lack loyalty because he is leaving behind two supposedly close friends merely because one friend declined physically and the other friend may not be quite good enough to help James win more championships? If James were truly motivated primarily by hometown concerns, then he never would have left Cleveland--and if his move to Miami was primarily motivated by the powerful bond of friendship (as some writers suggested at the time, speculating that he was trying to recreate his high school experience at St. Vincent-St. Mary) then James would not desert his friends but rather he would finish his career playing alongside them.

LeBron James fully realizes just how much power he wields in the NBA universe and he is not bashful about using that power. That does not make him a bad guy at all, but I am not ready to elevate him to sainthood, either; returning to Cleveland makes sense on many levels for James and I truly hope that he accomplishes all of the off-court goals that he eloquently listed but I do not quite buy his revisionist history about why he left or why he is coming back. I am intrigued, though, by how much he grew as a person and as a player in Miami, and it will be fascinating to watch that process continue in Cleveland--for at least one year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:37 AM


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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Brief Thoughts About the Free Agent Feeding Frenzy

I am not sure how all of the dominoes are going to fall after LeBron James makes the Decision, Part II but there is an amusing yet disingenuous quality to so much that is said about the free agency process. Here are a few bullet point thoughts to consider while the basketball world waits with bated breath for James to make one city very happy and several other cities very mad.

1) It is naive beyond belief to say that winning championships is the top priority for James or most of the other big name free agents. If winning championships were James' top priority back in 2010 then he would have stayed in Cleveland and aggressively recruited another star to join him on a squad that had posted the best regular season record in the NBA for two years in a row--or he would have teamed up with Kobe Bryant on the two-time defending NBA champion L.A. Lakers. Imagine James plus Chris Bosh paired with a big, deep frontcourt and coached by the defensive-minded Mike Brown--or imagine the two best players in the NBA (James and Bryant) wreaking havoc at both ends of the court, with Pau Gasol being an excellent third option and with Phil Jackson running the show on the sidelines. The reduced workload for Bryant would have conserved his energy and likely preserved his health. Instead, James went to Miami and things certainly turned out well for him overall but let's not pretend that money, endorsements and lifestyle did not play a huge role in his choice; when James announced "The Decision" he said that he was "taking my talents to South Beach," a phrase that revealed a lot about his narcissism and his true motivations for leaving Cleveland and for not sacrificing money/shot attempts/glory to team up with Bryant, who had won the previous two Finals MVPs.

If winning championships is James' top priority right now, then he will contact the San Antonio Spurs and work out a deal with them. James already has made hundreds of millions of dollars, so if he wants to win three or four more titles then why not give up a few million dollars in salary to join forces with the league's reigning champion/model franchise? Yes, James will have a good chance to win a championship wherever he goes because he is the league's best player but his best chance to win in the remaining years of his prime is to work with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich.

Meanwhile, by once again being coy James has raised Cleveland's hopes to a fever pitch. If he leaves Miami then he is abandoning a team that just made four straight trips to the NBA Finals and he is showing no loyalty to Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh--but if he stays in Miami then he will have broken Cleveland's heart for the second time in four years, something that would not have happened if James had just said from the start that he wanted to stay in Miami. James' desire to be the center of attention and to singlehandedly hold up the rest of the free agency process  makes it seem like he did not learn much from the mistakes he made during the first "Decision." I am pretty sure that James has had a plan in place for a while or perhaps one plan if Miami won the championship and a second plan if Miami did not win the championship--but he seems to enjoy toying with various franchises and watching billionaire owners scurry around trying to figure out how to entice him to join their teams.

2) I like Derrick Rose's attitude. He will not beg any other star to come play with him in Chicago and he will not publicly disrespect his current teammates by saying that he needs more help. He is confident but not cocky and it is a shame that he has not been healthy for several years.

3) I get the feeling that Phil Jackson would not be terribly disappointed if Carmelo Anthony left New York. I don't believe that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team and I think that Jackson understands that reality very well. Jackson is going to keep needling Anthony about taking less money and about diversifying his game until Anthony either begrudgingly accepts Jackson's mentoring or until Anthony flees for a less demanding environment. It would not surprise me if Anthony signs a max deal with New York, then starts complaining halfway through the season, giving Jackson a perfect opportunity to trade Anthony to one of the many teams that overvalues Anthony.

Of course, if Anthony really wants to win more than he wants anything else, there is no reason that he cannot sign with the Spurs. The Spurs have been winning 50-plus games a year for almost two decades; they are always championship contenders, they have made back to back Finals appearances and they just dismantled Miami's "super team" in one of the most lopsided championship series ever. Why isn't every free agent begging to play for the Spurs if winning is truly the most important thing?

4) Chris Bosh will bring an intelligent, all-around skill set and underrated defensive versatility to whichever franchise is fortunate enough to sign him.

5) It is not surprising that Dwayne Wade's game has aged so poorly; he is a muscular, undersized shooting guard with one game plan--bull his way to the hoop for dunks and/or free throw opportunities. He is a below average shooter and he does not have much of a post game. Anyone who ever thought that Wade was a better and/or more complete player than Bryant should take a long, hard look at how limited Wade is now that he cannot just jump over or sprint around other players. Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, made a seamless transition from high flyer to midrange virtuoso thanks to impeccable footwork and an excellent shooting touch. Jordan and Bryant both played at an MVP level well into their 30s; Wade will either be out of the league or have to accept a much reduced role by the time he is 34 or 35.

6) It will be interesting to see where Kevin Love ends up and how he performs not just individually but in terms of elevating a team to contender status. Is he truly as good as his numbers seem to suggest or is he the ultimate Kenny Smith "looter in a riot," a player who pads his statistics without ever having a huge impact in the won/loss column? I don't think that Love is a true "looter" but I also don't think that he can be the best player on a championship team; I could see him as a solid 20-10 second option on a championship team, though.

7) I just do not understand why the Oklahoma City Thunder get blasted for supposedly being cheap and for supposedly making a huge blunder by trading James Harden. What exactly has Harden accomplished so far in Houston, other than convincing a lot of media members to overrate him? The other day, a radio commentator criticized Thunder owner Clay Bennett for being more concerned about profits than winning, contrasting Bennett with Mark Cuban and Mickey Arison. That would be the same Mark Cuban who broke up a championship team to save money and the same Mickey Arison who refused to spend enough money to keep Mike Miller around. The Thunder offered Harden a market value deal, Harden declined and the Thunder made a prudent decision to trade him and build around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. If Westbrook and Ibaka had been healthy in the past two postseasons the Thunder may very well have won at least one championship. I will be surprised if the Thunder have a worse record next season than Harden's Rockets, Cuban's Mavericks or Arison's Heat.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM


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Friday, June 27, 2014

Highlights from First Virginia Squires Reunion

The Virginia Squires recently celebrated their first reunion. The franchise's two most famous alumni, Hall of Famers Julius Erving and George Gervin, both attended, along with former owner Earl Foreman and former Coach Al Bianchi. Here is a brief interview with Erving; check out the still photo around the :18 mark for a great image of a young Dr. J defying gravity:

Erving, Gervin and their former teammates enjoyed reminiscing with each other and with local fans:

Wavy.com posted a two part history of the Squires. Part One includes a great shot of Erving lofting a finger roll over Artis Gilmore (check out the video around the 1:57 mark):

History of the Virginia Squires, Part One

Part Two details the franchise's demise after the cash-strapped Foreman sold Erving to the New York Nets and sold Gervin to the San Antonio Spurs:

History of the Virginia Squires, Part Two

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:07 AM


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Monday, June 16, 2014

Spurs' Teamwork Overwhelms Heat's Star-Centered Approach

The San Antonio Spurs swept LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in James' first NBA Finals appearance, they nearly dethroned James' defending champion Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals and then in the 2014 NBA Finals they completely dismantled a star-studded Heat team that was trying to win a third straight championship. The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs are a remarkable team. They set an NBA single-season playoff record with 12 victories by at least 15 points and they won the championship despite the fact that none of their key players is in the prime of his career, which is unusual if not unprecedented. The Spurs have the greatest power forward of all-time (Tim Duncan), a perennial All-Star point guard (Tony Parker), one of the league's top sixth men/third options (Manu Ginobili) and a young, versatile star in the making who has enormous untapped potential (Kawhi Leonard)--but Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are all past their primes, while Leonard may still be two or three years away from his prime.

Parker is generally referred to as the Spurs' best player and Leonard won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP but I think that Duncan is not only the Spurs' best player but that a good case could be made that he should have won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP (I felt the same way after the 2007 NBA Finals); Duncan provides a significant low post presence for the Spurs at both ends of the court, making the game much easier for his teammates. Duncan no longer posts gaudy individual statistics, so "stat gurus" and conventional-thinking media members alike fail to appreciate his contributions, but he is the one common denominator for all five of San Antonio's championships (along with Coach Gregg Popovich) and that is not a coincidence.

Much is made in some quarters about how "stat gurus" have reshaped the NBA landscape by supposedly unearthing the value of three point shooting but it does not take "advanced basketball statistics" to realize that a .333 three point shooter produces as many points as a .500 two point shooter if they both attempt the same number of shots. Jacking up three pointers from all angles because three pointers are "efficient" does not win championships; if that strategy worked, then Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns would have been a dynasty and the Houston Rockets would have already won at least one title in the Daryl Morey era. The reality is that three point shooting can be a good ingredient in a championship recipe if that recipe also includes paint attacks (by posting up and/or driving) on offense, good floor balance and tenacious defense. If one or more of your key players shoots a lot of three pointers while also acting like playing defense leads to a terminal illness then your team will not win a championship, no matter how "efficient" your team looks on paper. 

The Spurs routed the Heat with pinpoint passing, excellent defense and tremendous discipline; borrowing a phrase used by chess champion Susan Polgar, the Spurs accepted their devastating 2013 NBA Finals loss with grace and they won the 2014 NBA Finals with dignity. The Spurs are a joy to watch for any basketball purist.

In contrast to the Spurs' balance, the Heat have four future Hall of Famers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen), two of whom are in their primes (James and Bosh) and two of whom are filling reduced roles that they should be more than capable of handling at the current stages of their respective careers. The numbers say that James was very productive during the 2014 NBA Finals and that he did all he could reasonably be expected to do--but the eye test says that he rarely dominated and that he often was not the best player on the court. James' talent is unquestionable and his mental game has grown by leaps and bounds but there is something missing when he faces the highest level of competition. His teams are now 2-3 in the NBA Finals, a record that does not compare favorably with the ABA/NBA Finals records of most Pantheon-level players:

Bill Russell:11-1
Michael Jordan: 6-0
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 6-4
Magic Johnson: 5-4
Julius Erving: 3-3
Larry Bird: 3-2
Wilt Chamberlain: 2-4
Jerry West: 1-8
Oscar Robertson: 1-1
Elgin Baylor: 0-7

Erving and Bird each suffered two Finals losses to teams that featured Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson. Jordan went 1-0 against Johnson sans Abdul-Jabbar in Johnson's final full season. Russell defeated the West-Baylor duo four times and once he defeated a Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio. Also worth mentioning are the career NBA Finals records of Kobe Bryant (5-2), Tim Duncan (5-1) and Shaquille O'Neal (4-2), the three most dominant players of the post Michael Jordan era other than James. This additional context shows that Russell's Boston Celtics repeatedly frustrated Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Baylor--but most players who can make a reasonable case for being the greatest player of their era (if not of all-time) won at least three championships and did not have a losing record in the Finals.

James is a great player; he is the best player in the NBA, the 2014 regular season MVP vote notwithstanding. He may set the record for most regular season MVPs and he still has an opportunity to win more championships. However, as things stand right now he is not a more dominant champion than several of his great predecessors--and the argument that those great predecessors had more help can be countered by pointing out that they also faced teams that had multiple future Hall of Famers in their primes. James leading the Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships is a laudable accomplishment--but a slightly past his prime Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals appearances and back to back championships with a supporting cast that was not as deep or as talented as James' Heat. James is not as terrible as his harshest critics suggest--but if he were as great as his biggest fans believe then he would have done more in his prime with two Hall of Fame sidekicks than an aging Bryant did while playing alongside Pau Gasol (who was 0-12 in the playoffs before teaming up with Bryant), Lamar Odom (who never made the All-Star team, never mind being a future Hall of Famer), Andrew Bynum (who put up Luc Longleyesque numbers during the Lakers' three straight trips to the Finals) and the ghost of Ron Artest.

Wade's career has followed an interesting arc; his productivity has steadily declined since 2009, when he averaged a career-high 30.2 ppg and won his only scoring title. Wade has not made the All-NBA First Team since 2010, when he was 28. Wade used to be a good defender but this season he made James Harden look like a defensive stopper; not only did players routinely blow by Wade but Wade often did not make the slightest effort to recover and in open court situations he trotted back on defense as if he were lugging two pianos on his back. The Heat rested Wade liberally during the regular season to keep his body fresh for the playoffs and there is no indication that something is wrong with Wade physically; it just seems like he no longer plays as hard as one would expect an elite player to play.

Size matters in the NBA and having a complete skill set matters, particularly for an undersized players as he ages. Wade has always only had one plan of attack: bull toward the hoop, overpower any defenders in his path and either finish at the hoop or hope to be bailed out by a foul call in his favor. He never developed a reliable jump shot and he has shot better than .800 from the free throw line just once in his 11 year career. Wade has not aged well because his game is not nearly as well-rounded or adaptable as Jordan's or Bryant's; Jordan and Bryant both had the necessary height and skill set to compensate for declining athleticism.

Yet, even a declining and/or disinterested Wade would still be the number one offensive option if he played for the Spurs; the Spurs did not beat the Heat because of superior talent (though superior depth was a factor to some extent) but rather the Spurs beat the Heat because they maximized the abilities of their stars while making the Heat's stars feel uncomfortable. Duncan has diversified his offensive game, Parker has added a jump shot to his arsenal and former All-Star Ginobili has learned how to make the most of limited minutes/field goal attempts--but Wade is still trying to do the same things that he did in his prime, with much less success.

Bosh may be the most misunderstood future Hall of Famer in the NBA. He is a versatile and intelligent player who receives senseless criticism because of his willingness to take a back seat to James and Wade. Bosh averaged 24.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg in his final season with the Toronto Raptors before joining the Heat, so he clearly possesses elite level talent and the ability to be a number one option for a playoff team--but he understands that for Miami to be successful he must accept being the third option offensively and he must be willing to function as an undersized center defensively so that the Heat can run most teams off of the court with their athleticism and defensive pressure.

The Spurs' championship window supposedly slammed shut many years ago but if they had just been able to close out game six or game seven of the 2013 NBA Finals they would now be the reigning two-time defending champions. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs are able to keep their aging nucleus together but even if some of their older players retire they may still be a viable contender if Leonard emerges as an All-Star/All-NBA caliber performer. Meanwhile, the much younger Heat nucleus may be broken up or may decide to break itself up; if all of the rhetoric that the "Big Three" spouted three years ago about sacrificing money to win championships is true then those players would no doubt accept pay cuts so that the team can bolster its depth--but Wade has publicly stated his unwillingness to do this, so James may therefore decide that the time has come to team up with a sidekick who is younger and/or has a more diversified game than Wade.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:43 AM


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