Tuesday, October 6, 2015

ESPN Refuses to Play Name That Racist

ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and Kevin Arnovitz have a lengthy feature story out today about, in part, the controversy over racist remarks that then-Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry uttered in a June 2014 scouting meeting:

Ferry and his staff had also drawn a general personality profile. In referencing Deng, who was born in Sudan and of African ethnicity, Ferry said Deng "has a little African in him," then added, "He's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back."
The suggestion was that, with regard to how he communicated with the team, Deng may be a little two-faced. Ferry would later say he was reading from a report compiled from a league executive who had worked with Deng in the past. The select few who would know, including Ferry, refuse to reveal who wrote the comment.

But wait a minute.  It wasn't Ferry who drew this "personality profile".   And the epistemology doesn't support that Ferry merely "said" he was reading a report from another league executive.  Multiple published reports have indicated that these remarks came from a scouting report sitting on Ferry's desk.  A copy of the report is here, courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and television station WSB-2.   The offending discussion of Deng begins toward the bottom of the second page.

Note the date of the report/interview: June 6, 2014.  And the opening lines: "When we got him, Chicago had run him into the ground."  This could only be coming from a member of Cleveland Cavalier management; the Cavs acquired Deng from the Bulls for draft picks on January 7, 2014.

[Let's note in passing that Ferry apparently paraphrased the report slightly: the report doesn't exactly say "he has a little African in him," and Ferry referred to "counterfeit stuff out of the back" while the report reads "black market section in the back."  So Ferry was at least a little invested in this take on Deng.]

Back to the point: which Cav executive whose tenure overlapped with Deng's time on the team could have said this?

This isn't hard.  Let's review the Cavs' management roster from the 2013-14 season:

  • "February 06, 2014 12:43 PM ET.  Cleveland Cavaliers announced that GM Chris Grant was fired Thursday morning.  From the Cavs: "I would like to thank Chris Grant for his eight and a half years of service with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the last three and a half as General Manager. Chris always conducted himself with class, integrity and was motivated by what he believed was right for the organization. We wish Chris and his family the best in the years to come," said Dan Gilbert Majority Owner of the Cavaliers."

  • "February 06, 2014 at 3:14 PM.  David Griffin has been elevated to acting general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the release of Chris Grant. The former right-hand man of Grant has been with the Cavaliers since September 2010 – shortly after Grant took over as general manager."

So are we down to four candidates?  But wait a minute!  Towards the end of the report from the anonymous Cav exec, it states that "CHA, PHX, DAL, & LAL all had degrees of interest around the deadline."  So whoever said this was part of the Cavalier organization at the 2014 trading deadline, which means it wasn't Grant, who was no longer employed as of the February 20, 2014 deadline.  It was likely one of Griffin, Redden, or Altman.  [I acknowledge the possibility that a lower-level executive or scout may have provided the blurb on Deng to Ferry.]

Why, then, won't ESPN properly identify the source of the noxious quote, or even mention that the Cavs almost certainly provided it?  Isn't this article's co-author, Brian Windhorst, a longstanding Cavs beat writer with the Akron Beacon-Journal, Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and now (since LeBron James returned to Cleveland in July of last year) for ESPN's website?  If anyone can speculate, surely it's him, right?

But that's journalism: offend your key source too much, and you'll be frozen out.  I just wish this article didn't try to be so self-consciously serious when it makes not even a half-hearted gesture at integrity.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

One (Not So) Angry Man

According to this story, LeBron James reported for jury duty in Akron, Ohio today.  He was not chosen for the panel and went home after a couple hours.

His summons for jury duty suggests, based on Ohio policy for selecting jurors, that James has likely maintained his voter registration, or driver's license, or both, in Ohio since "taking his talents to South Beach" in July of 2010, over three years ago.

Actually, we can drop the "likely" qualification: a search of registered voters at the Ohio Secretary of State's website (type in LeBron James and Summit County) indicates that he is still registered to vote there.

James should have surrendered his Ohio driver's license and obtained a Florida driver's license within 30 days of establishing FL residency in 2010, according to this Florida DMV document (see Section 2.3 on Page 8 of the document / Page 9 of the PDF, and pay attention to criteria (d) and (e) there).  While James still owns property in Ohio, he spends at least nine months per year with his fiancee and children in his $9 million house in suburban Miami, and he is employed by a Florida business entity, viz. the Heat.  Particularly in light of Florida's lack of state income tax, it is likely that James has taken every step to establish Florida residency

Hopefully James is not so brazen as to vote in two states, so let us assume that he is registered to vote in only Ohio, and that he has voted by absentee ballot in 2010 and 2012.  Is it possible that Florida considers the King a resident for driver's license and tax purposes while Ohio accepts him as a resident for voting purposes?  Ohio's voter registration form defines residency as "the location that you consider to be a permanent, not a temporary, residence . . . the place in which your habitation is fixed and to which, whenever you are absent, you intend to return."  That is a heck of a mouthful, but a clever barrister could argue that James considers Miami to be only a temporary residence, and he still intends to eventually return to the Akron area when his pro hoops days are done.  James's Family Foundation, which focuses on needy youths in the Akron area, suggests he has enduring ties to the Buckeye State. 

Alternatively, James may have registered to vote in Florida after moving with his family there following "The Decision."  In such case, James should have filed a request to cancel his Ohio voter registration.  Perhaps James neglected to cancel his Ohio voter registration as he should have; under this scenario, when he received the Summit County, OH jury duty notice at his Akron house, rather than protest it based on his Florida residency, which would be entirely legitimate, he decided to acquiesce out of a mix of civic pride and public relations concern.

Still, while residency is not clearly defined and is not necessarily consistent under state and federal law, it cannot be denied that James's appearance for Ohio jury duty undermines any claim he may assert to Florida residency for tax and other purposes.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

How A Shark Makes Investments

Last week Mark Cuban took to his blog to write a long defense of his roster-building strategies over the past two years. He discusses his decision to let Tyson Chandler sign with the Knicks during the December 2011 free-agency period following the lockout, arguing that the compressed 2011-12 schedule would've made success impossible for the aging Mavs team. He also mentions his failure to persuade Dwight Howard or Chris Paul to join the Mavs during the July 2013 free-agency period. Yet, curiously, not once does he mention Deron Williams, a Texas native whom many thought would join Dallas during the July 2012 signing period. Even Williams's close friend and former Olympic teammate Jason Kidd thought D-Will would join Dallas! As we know, Cuban chose to attend a taping of his TV show (which I enjoy a great deal, incidentally) rather than attend the pitch meeting with Williams and his agents. Not surprisingly, Williams chose to re-sign with the Nets after his putative new boss couldn't be bothered to meet him.

Additionally, Cuban's suggestion that retaining the 2011 championship roster would've been too onerous in light of salary-cap rules was a bit of a strawman. In the event, Cuban brought back most of 2011's key players for the 2011-12 season, including Nowitzki, Kidd, Marion, Terry, Haywood, Mahinmi, and Cardinal (yes, Brian Cardinal, who made a couple timely passes and screens in the 2011 Finals). While Cuban did allow Deshawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea, and Caron Butler to leave as free agents, they were replaceable; Butler did not even play in the Finals. Cuban also acquired Vince Carter that offseason using the mini-mid-level exception. The only missing step to bringing back the band was to recruit their defensive anchor, Chandler, to re-join the team.   Had they brought back Chandler, it's easy to see the team scaring Oklahoma City in 2012's first round; the Thunder won their four games by an average of just six points (2.5 points if you exclude Game 3) and lived on forays to the hoop by their three perimeter stars.  Had the Mavs squeaked by OKC, they would've next seen the Lakers, whom they thumped the previous spring, the old Spurs, and the Heat, whose number they had decidedly nabbed in 2011.

Cuban could have easily inked Chandler, who went on to be the 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year, to a multi-year deal and still had salary-cap space (with some creative roster moves, e.g. an amnesty of Haywood, a trade of Shawn Marion and Mahinmi to teams with salary-cap space, and a decision to let Kidd and Terry leave after their contracts expired on 6/30/2012) to sign Williams for the 2012-13 season. Why he didn't do this (as well as why Oklahoma City passed on a chance to acquire Chandler way back in 2009) is beyond me.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Wondrous Nate Robinson

5-foot-9 Nate Robinson is one of the most remarkable players in NBA history. To be fair, a few players of well under 6 feet in height have carved out a career in the NBA, based on either outlandish leaping ability, otherworldly speed, or both. 5'3" Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues spent fourteen seasons in the league, including nine as an often-double-digit-assisting starting PG for the Hornets. 5'7" Anthony "Spud" Webb hung around the league for twelve seasons, winning the 1986 All-Star Slam Dunk contest:

5'5" Earl Boykins has hung around the league for parts of thirteen seasons as a wispy, slippery sixth man, although his NBA career may have ended when he couldn't find a spot in training camps last fall.

However, none of those guys ever participated in anything of much importance in the league.  By that standard, the greatest little man ever may be the 5'9" Robinson, who was drafted in the first round in 2005 after a decorated basketball and football career at the University of Washington. Robinson spent his first five seasons with the Knicks as mostly a novelty act, feuding with his coaches and teammates and exchanging fisticuffs too often with teammates and opponents. Exhibiting incredible hops befitting his thick legs (he carries 180 pounds on his averagely-built frame) Robinson won the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Weekend of 2007 (after requiring 14 attempts to complete a spectacular leg-threading slam), of 2009 (figuratively defrocking reigning dunk champ Dwight Howard's Superman cape, which I have previously denounced in this blog as offensive), and 2010.

Believe it or not, the formerly clownish Robinson once dominated crunch time of an NBA Finals game, against the Hall of Fame-bound duo of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.  How did this happen?  Just before the trade deadline in February 2010, the Knicks flipped Nate Robinson to Boston for Eddie House, who had grown too stiff to be a credible bench scorer.  In the Finals against the Lakers a few months later, Robinson dribbled past Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, and other strong defenders to score 6 of his 12 points during a crucial fourth-quarter stretch as the Celtics built and held a nine-point lead.  In the postgame interviews, Robinson absurdly likened himself to the Eddie-Murphy-voiced cartoon character "Donkey" from the Shrek movies (and labelled his teammate Glen Davis the ogre Shrek),

Despite his heroics in June of '10, the Celtics traded the mercurial Robinson to Oklahoma City in 2011 as part of a deal for Jeff Green. Thunder coach Scott Brooks wouldn't or couldn't find a way to use Robinson's offensive fury after that trade, and he played only 30 minutes over four games as the season ended, even as the Thunder readied to chase serious playoff fortune. (They reached the conference finals against Dallas that May but still deployed Robinson only for six minutes over two games, both blowout wins, during the playoffs.) Robinson latched on to Golden State after the lockout as a fifth guard and spent the 2011-12 season quietly rebuilding his reputation, finally putting up big offensive numbers as an April starter after Stephen Curry called it quits with an ankle injury. (To be fair, Golden State was actively "tanking" in hopes of landing a top-7 draft pick, thus avoiding the obligation to surrender their pick to Utah stemming from a years-old trade. Thus, Robinson's capacity for winning was still questionable after this stint.)

When the Chicago Bulls cleared their decks of overpriced bench players last summer, they signed Robinson to a single-year, minimum-salaried contract. With Derrick Rose injured all season, Robinson played all 82 games and started 23, as Kirk Hinrich came to play more of a "utility infielder" role over the course of the campaign.  As the Bulls were missing several unhealthy players (just like the previous April), few assigned them much hope in their first-round series against the Nets, but Robinson led the team to victory in seven games, highlighted by his 34-point, 29-minute performance in the triple-overtime Game 4 (featuring 12 straight unanswered points in the final three minutes of regulation to close a huge deficit). Below, the last bucket of the 12-point string:

Robinson also battled through a stomach virus in Game 6 of that series, pausing to vomit several times on the sidelines.  Tonight, Mr. Robinson led the fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls to a victory over Lebron James's Miami Heat team, one day after James collected his fourth MVP trophy, and one week after the Heat completed a stretch of 41 victories in 43 games. As both primary ballhandler and scorer, Robinson registered 27 points on 16 shots and also dished the ball for 9 assists. Down three points with two minutes left, Robinson bounced the ball to Marco Belinelli for a very open corner three-pointer, then broke the tie by scoring seven straight points himself, while the Heat's four Hall of Famers missed five straight shots from the field. Ballgame to the Bulls, 93-86.

Dating to the Brooklyn series, which two members of the JPO collective attended live last week, Robinson is playing at a high level and with a very high level of confidence. While he struggled to defend Nets ace Deron Williams, he will have less trouble against Miami's Mario Chalmers, who is rarely more than a fifth option. Ray Allen often spells Chalmers in late-game situations; Allen, too, is little more than a catch-and-shoot player for Miami, and Robinson should be able to chase the older Allen anywhere he goes on the court. (Robinson also showed little regard for Allen's defensive abilities tonight when the former drove around the much taller Allen for a finger-roll bucket to push the lead to 90-86 with 20 seconds left.)

So Robinson is nearly replicating the offensive leadership that Derrick Rose gave the Bulls in the previous four seasons. Still, Rose could wreak a bit more havoc than Robinson can by tiring out help defenders and drawing fouls. As I have made clear on this blog in the past (if the title did not so inform you), I am no Chicago Bulls fan, but let me offer the following counsel to them: Having stolen the opening frame of the series, and with Russell Westbrook out for the balance of the playoffs, and having seen the Spurs nearly drop their first home game to the Warriors, the Bulls now have a small chance (slim to be sure, but greater than the infinitesimal chance I would have assessed two weeks ago) of winning the NBA championship. Very few teams in any given vernal period ever see their reasonably-handicapped odds rise anywhere above 100:1, so this is an important opportunity. With Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich still nursing health problems, it is time for Derrick Rose, the Bulls' 16-million-dollar man, to get on the court. No offense to the amazing Robinson, of course.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Links of the Week

Our favorite recent articles:

  • Chris "Birdman" Andersen is the perfect fit for Miami.
  • Paul George has replaced Danny Granger on the Pacers, and then some.
  • DeJuan Blair of the Spurs has legal problems with a jeweler.
  • Steve McPherson critiques the Thunder's unsuccessful fouling strategy from the latter minutes of Game 5 against Houston.

  • Sunday, April 7, 2013

    Links of the Week

    JPO has taken a blogging hiatus for most of this lonely winter, but we haven't stopped watching hoops in the interim. Sheepishly, we now return to the WWW with a rundown of our favorite articles from the past couple weeks. More substantive commentary will follow soon.

  • SI.com's Rob Mahoney breaks down Tim Duncan's still-stout defensive game.
  • Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard shows us how Stephen Curry became perhaps the best shooter in all of basketball.
  • Mahoney, again, illustrates with video and nifty charts the resurgence of Roy Hibbert's offensive game.
  • Charley Rosen moves the chess pieces in an imagined showdown between the 2013 Miami Heat and the 1972 Lakers, the owners of the two longest winning streaks ever seen in the league.
  • ESPN.com's Ethan Strauss explains that basketball fans should prefer the NBA to college ball because the NCAA tournament, with its lose-you're-out format, has too many lucky, undeserved outcomes. To his argument I would add (1) the talent is far higher in the pros, obviously, and (2) college basketball corrupts the academic culture of universities, diverting attention and resources to a side business far afield from the institution's mission. (The recent scandal at Rutgers revealed what is likely not an atypical power base in a university's athletic department.) If universities need more revenue, state legislatures should respond with ordinary taxation and spending. If the NBA needs a minor league, it should pay for it.
  • William C. Rhoden of the New York Times opines on Chris Webber's relationship with his former college in advance of Monday night's NCAA men's championship game.

  • Thursday, December 13, 2012

    Links of the Week

    Our favorite links of the past few days:

  • Yahoo.com's Adrian Wojnarowski on Kendrick Perkins's influence upon the locker room in Oklahoma City.
  • Wojnarowski, on a roll, lands a brutally honest interview with Minnesota's Kevin Love.
  • Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal addresses Dwight Howard's free-throw problem, and provides some personal testimony as to how it might be fixed.
  • Howard Beck of The New York Times files a subtle indictment of Mike D'Antoni (and make sure you click on the Grantland.com article by Zach Lowe linked therein).
  • Wednesday, December 12, 2012

    The Ageless Kidd

    See that image above, freshly downloaded from my scanner? (You may need to click on the image for a clearer view.) I found this advertisement inside United Airlines’s “Skymall” catalog while on a flight last summer from Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I meant to scan it earlier but have been lazy during these past few months. Explaining the economics of this ad requires a lot of exposition, so please stay with me. During the offseason of ’12, Jeremy Lin was on top of the basketball world, after a crazy Tebow-like win streak with Lin as the starting point guard in February and March. His coach in New York, Mike Woodson, proclaimed Lin the point guard of the Knicks’ future… until Lin signed a three-year, $25 million contract with Houston that would have ruined the Knicks’ salary-cap management plan. In the end, New York chose not to exercise its right to match the Rockets' steep offer. ESPN.com published a six-part (really) series of articles about why the Knicks chose to let him leave. Many fans were devastated when New York chose Raymond Felton as its new starting point guard over Lin.

    Meanwhile, during the same weeks of July, Jason Kidd had a handshake agreement to re-ink his name with Dallas whenever his golfing buddy Deron Williams chose to sign with Dallas as a free agent… but then Mavs owner Mark Cuban no-showed the pitch meeting with Williams in favor of taping a reality television show, D-Will chose to stay with New Jersey, the miffed Kidd signed with New York planning to mentor Lin instead, but then, as already mentioned, Lin signed a too-rich contract with Houston that Knicks management chose not to match, and Kidd suddenly became a backup to the overweight Felton. Got all that?

    So, with Lin a new star commanding a billion eyeballs and Kidd a 39-year-old afterthought, it is little wonder that a basketball signed by Lin could fetch $400 and a Kidd-signed ball went for a quarter of that. Jason Kidd, the former Rookie of the Year, MVP runner-up, and future Hall of Famer.

    Yet here is Kidd, still (after similar jobs with the Nets and Mavericks earlier in his career) improbably willing a team with less-than-elite talent to outstanding performance. Sure, Carmelo Anthony is a fantastic scorer and Tyson Chandler is a very stout defender, but the rest of New York ’s roster is either comically old (Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby), one-dimensional (J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Ronnie Brewer Jr.) or too injured to play (Amare Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert). Kidd even led an Anthony-less team to a 20-point win over Miami last Thursday. Kidd is defending wings, as he did to great effect in the 2011 NBA Finals, dishing, stealing, and hitting three-pointers at a 50% rate. And Lin, for all his ferocious talent, is struggling to share the ball with James Harden.

    (Did I mention that, when I visited the U.C. Berkeley campus in 1994, more than one person mistook me for Jason Kidd? I think it was the close-cropped hair, prominent nose, and ethnically ambiguous features. So I have long felt solidarity with the guy.)

    Last night Kidd sank 6 of 8 three-pointers to help top the Nets. On most of them, his Net defender (usually Deron Williams or Joe Johnson) left him unguarded for an obvious count of one… two… sometimes three beats. To be fair, Carmelo Anthony with the ball often invites a hedge or an earnest help, sometimes making recovery difficult, but the Nets know that Kidd is a deadly three-point shooter. After he made his fifth shot from long range, why did they leave him so open for the sixth and final, game-winning 3-ball? A Ronnie Brewer or perhaps Ray Felton (if priorities must be drawn) can be ignored on the perimeter, but Jason Kidd?

    Here above is Kidd's game-winning shot. The equally old Jerry Stackhouse, assigned to guard Kidd, foolishly stays near the painted area, waiting to oppose a potential drive by Felton. But Stackhouse strays too far from Kidd, Felton sees the opening, and Kidd lands a wide-open three-ball (and uses his leg to draw a foul too, though that probably should have been an offensive foul, as Jeff Van Gundy observes on commentary).

    At times like these, the overused acronym "SMH" is apt.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    The ER All-Stars

    Frack it! Sprains, breaks, and tears have delayed or significantly hindered the season debuts of numerous All-Star caliber players. Injuries happen every season; indeed, a year ago some thought the number of injuries –- to stars including Zach Randolph, Al Horford, Derrick Rose, Steph Curry, Eric Gordon, and Andrea Bargnani –- was higher than normal after the lockout, though the statistics were typical of any season. But with at least 12 top guys out in 2012-13’s first month, NBA fans have good reason to feel antsy. Below, a review of the most prominent denizens of the disabled list:

    STEVE NASH Nash played just six quarters for the Lakers before breaking a bone in his leg in a collision with Portland’s rookie phenomenon Damien Lillard. He has missed three weeks thus far and the Lakers have declined to offer a specific timeline on his recovery. With the recent recruitment of Mike D’Antoni as the new Lakers head coach, Nash’s signature ball-on-a-string, feinting, looping offensive attack will find full bloom in the Staples Center -– in contrast to the planned offensive system of Mike Brown, who wanted Nash to stand in a corner and occasionally receive skip passes from Pau Gasol. With Dwight Howard returning to full health, Kobe Bryant healed from the knee and wrist injuries of the past two seasons, Ron Artest (er, M. World Peace) lurking in the corner, and Gasol able to play any offensive role asked of him, the Lakers should be unstoppable in half-court sets with Nash.

    KEVIN LOVE Minnesota has missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, dating to the MVP season of Minny's last great Kevin in 2003-04. Following that year’s foray to the conference finals, Garnett captained three straight lottery teams, culminating in his trade to Boston in 2007. After a year of ignominy, Love, the nephew of a Beach Boy and the son of an NBAer, arrived via the draft, but the Timberwolves have still stubbornly stayed playoff-free in Love’s four seasons.

    Love first showed the utmost of his abilities in the 2010 FIBA world championship, pairing with Kevin Durant to bring home the top prize for the US men’s team. This past summer at the London Olympics, Love overcame early skepticism from his coaching staff to earn more PT as the tournament progressed, tallying 9 points and 9 rebounds in the successful gold-medal game against España. With a refurbished roster including Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko, Minnesota looked poised to finally nab a playoff spot this season, but Love broke bones in his hand in October while doing knuckle pushups and will be out until sometime in December. Without him, the Wolves have started the season 5-4. (UPDATE: Love surprisingly made his season debut on November 21st, several weeks ahead of schedule. Love posted 34 points and 14 rebounds, but Minnesota lost to the well-rounded Nuggets.)

    ERIC GORDON Dating to the second half of the 2010-11 season, Gordon has missed 93 of his last 117 possible regular-season games on the Clippers and Hornets. Nonetheless, Phoenix presented him this past July with a $58 million contract offer over four years, and New Orleans exercised its right to match the deal (despite Gordon’s plaintive bleats that he really, really wanted to play in Phoenix). The Hornets’ reward? No Gordon, as he still is rehabilitating the knee injury that sidelined him for nearly all of 2011-12. A young core of Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Davis could combine deadly shooting with insuperable paint defense, but right now the backcourt in New Orleans consists of Greivis Vasquez and Austin Rivers.

    JOHN WALL The top draft pick from 2010, Wall has so far failed to distinguish himself among the NBA’s point guards, posting a terrible field goal percentage of 42% (and nailing only 3 total three-pointers) during his second season. This is the third season after the Wizards jettisoned nearly every decent player from their 2009-10 pseudo-contender, including Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, and Gilbert Arenas. The third season is when rebuilding projects normally show sparks of vigor -– see Oklahoma City challenging the eventual NBA champion Lakers in 2010’s playoffs –- but Washington is still terrible, and Wall has yet to play this fall with a knee problem. Wall, surprisingly, has been outplayed in his NBA career thus far by his old Kentucky teammate Eric Bledsoe.

    ANDREW BOGUT Another former #1 overall pick, Bogut came to Golden State last March in a trade for GSW’s best scorer, Monta Ellis. Warriors management hoped to improve the team’s defensive play after approximately 30 years of run-and-gun futility. Unfortunately, Bogut was still recovering from a horrible arm injury suffered in April of 2010, and he suffered an ankle injury late last season that necessitated surgery. He continued to rehabilitate both injuries during the summer, but thus far in the 2012-13 campaign, Bogut has played only twice due to his ankle problem. The Warriors are presently 6-5, a respectable mark for a young team, but Bogut's low-post play on both ends could help them solidify a playoff spot.

    AMARE STOUDEMIRE Stoudemire practiced with Hakeem Olajuwon this past summer (incidentally, I was slightly surprised when I read that Olajuwon, who has tutored numerous stars over the past few years, charges $50,000 per week; perhaps I naively believed that the Dream gave these lessons for free out of love for the game) and reportedly showed up to training camp in excellent shape. Unfortunately, he ruptured a cyst in his knee towards the end of October, requiring surgery that will put him out of action until sometime in December. In the meantime, the Knicks have started strong with Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith supplying most of the team's needed offense; Stoudemire may return to the club to find that he is expected to anchor the bench unit.

    RICKY RUBIO The 2011 draft class largely did not impress last season (the absence of summer-league ball or training camp following the draft were certainly hampering factors), and only Kyrie Irving looked like a budding superstar. However, Irving faced real competition for the honor of best rookie, as Rubio -– originally drafted by Minnesota in 2009 -– finally left Barcelona and joined the world’s best basketball league. Rubio consistently passed the ball to teammates like it were a trained falcon:

    While Rubio shot the ball terribly, he did average 8 assists and over 2 steals, very strong numbers for a rookie. Unfortunately, Rubio ripped his ACL (the same injury that befell Derrick Rose, mentioned immediately below) last March, and the Timberwolves promptly lost 20 of their final 25 games, ruining a strong (for them) 21-20 start. Rubio is still recovering from the ligament tear and may return next month. When the Timberwolves finally get back Love and Rubio together, they should be as good as several other lower-tier playoff aspirants like Utah, Dallas, and Golden State. (They also will have an unusually high quotient of players with European ancestry: 10 of 15, by my count.)

    DERRICK ROSE After his spectacular 2010-11 MVP work, Rose was hobbled by numerous injuries in the post-lockout season, missing nearly half the season's 66 games and averaging only 22 points (down from 25 in the previous season) and seeing a dip in all his shooting percentages. Despite his problems, Chicago still compiled the East’s best record and expected another conference finals battle with Miami. Unfortunately, Rose tore a knee ligament in the first game of Chicago’s first-round series against #8 Philadelphia and dropped that frame in front of a stunned Madison St. crowd. Joakim Noah subsequently injured his ankle, and without their two best players, the Bulls succumbed to the Sixers in six. Rose had surgery to repair the ligament a couple weeks later and has been recovering for the past six months. Rose will likely return to the league around March of this season. In the meantime, Bulls management declined a 2012-13 contract option on Ronnie Brewer; traded Kyle Korver; and allowed Omer Asik to sign with Houston, where he is a strong candidate for Most Improved Player. Shorn of Rose and their excellent bench, the Bulls have started this season playing only .500 ball.

    ANDREW BYNUM The precocious Bynum was drafted at age 17 to be the Lakers’ savior and won two championships before the age of 22. One of the largest men in the league, he likes to do everything big: nights at the Playboy Mansion, summer vacation in South Africa, a blown-out Afro haircut, a devastating clothesline to J.J. Barea. Unfortunately, his injury woes are also big: he missed half of 2007-08 and 2008-09 due to separate knee injuries, and then he played with severe limitations in the 2010 NBA Finals due to meniscus and Achilles’ problems. Bynum also missed the beginning of the 2010-11 season recovering from offseason surgery to the meniscus. Bynum was able to return to the Lakers in December of 2010 in top form, and he avoided injuries during the balance of that season and the next one. This past August, after over 12 months of trade rumors, Los Angeles finally exercised a chance to upgrade from the NBA’s second-best center to its greatest, trading Bynum in a complicated four-team deal for Dwight Howard. The trade routed Bynum to Philadelphia, which, while giving away Andre Iguodala, hoped to combine the giant with its talented youngsters like Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner to build a juggernaut. Unfortunately, Bynum suffered another knee injury in training camp last month, and recently divulged that he also injured his other knee while bowling. Good luck, Sixers fans.

    DANNY GRANGER Indiana is the league’s most disappointing team thus far; after pounding on Miami in a tough six-game second-round series last May, the Pacers shuffled their roster and expected to challenge the Heat as their young stars like George and Hibbert continued to grow. Unfortunately, Hibbert has played terribly thus far after signing a new contract in July, shooting under 40% from the field, under 60% from the line, and posting only 10 points per game. Indiana's lone advantage over Miami is the strength of its big men, but David West is an old 32 years old, and without a top-flight center, the Pacers will combust in the presence of too much Heat. Granger is the Pacers' best player, and he does not quite fit in a starting lineup that also boasts 6'10" Paul George, a smooth-moving natural small forward. Granger's absence might give George the space he needs to grow, but he, too, has played like a putz thus far, averaging just 40% from the field and scoring only 15 points each night. The Pacers, 5-7 entering tonight and reeling from losses to the Bobcats and Raptors, badly miss Granger.

    DIRK NOWITZKI Nowitzki had knee problems last season, requiring him to take a week off from game play in January to rest and strengthen his joint. The same problem recurred in this season's training camp, leading Nowitzki to open up his knee for arthroscopic surgery. Dallas's G.O.A.T. Maverick will likely return sometime in December. In the meantime, former #3 overall draft pick O.J. Mayo has emerged as Dallas's leading scorer in Nowitzki's absence; while the Mavs failed to acquire Deron Williams or Dwight Howard, Mayo may blossom into the star they need to attack foes next to Nowitzki in his final seasons.

    CHAUNCEY BILLUPS Mr. Big Shot may not be quite as agile as he used to be, but this five-time All-Star and former Finals MVP steadied the Clippers early last season after their former wings, Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu, departed to New Orleans via trade. Unfortunately, Billups tore his Achilles’ (shouldn’t that be Achilles’s ?) tendon after just 20 games last February, forcing the Clippers to trade a draft pick to Washington for Nick Young to fill the hole in long-range artillery. The Clippers have started strong this season and are starting Willie Green at shooting guard, but Billups will strengthen the squad's passing acumen, leadership, and marksmanship when he returns, likely in December.

    Meanwhile, second-year stud KYRIE IRVING has started the season strong, but broke his finger a few days ago and will miss one month of action. Oy!

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    Links of the Week

    Our favorite links of the past few days:

  • SI.com's Rob Mahoney on Jeremy Lin's learning curve as a non-lead guard in Houston. (And here is a related story on ESPN.com)
  • Grantland.com's Jonathan Abrams on the tumultous life and times of Zach Randolph.
  • ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz on Utah's experiment of playing Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, and Paul Millsap together.
  • Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe chronicles the Celtics' odd endeavor to give Rajon Rondo ten assists.
  • Jason Quick of The Oregonian addresses Damian Lillard's late-game dunk against Chicago on Sunday night. Here is the video:
  • Thursday, November 1, 2012

    Links of the Week

    Here are the best links of the young season. An encouraging trend in the last month is less commentary about trade rumors and sex scandals, and more analysis of the glorious game of basketball as it is played on the court.

  • SI.com's Rob Mahoney on the incomplete skill sets of several young talents.
  • Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer on Doug Collins's taste (or lack thereof) for statistical analysis.
  • Zach Lowe of ESPN's Grantland analyzes James Harden's defensive deficiencies.
  • Sunday, October 28, 2012

    Season Preview and Other Thoughts

    The NBA is back! At JPO, we have been watching the league’s doings with a half-dreamy and half-jaded eye since the Heat hoisted the O’Brien trophy last June. The coming season will be exhilarating, as the Heat try to repeat (which would constitute a ninth NBA championship ring for Pat Riley and a third for Dwyane Wade, quietly pushing the latter up the list of all-time great shooting guards); the Lakers try to unite four Hall of Famers for the second time in a decade; young players like Curry, Wall, Cousins, Irving, and Davis seek to fulfill their potential; and mid-tier teams like Chicago, New York, Indiana, Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver, and the Clippers aim to either leap to greatness or possibly dismantle their roster. For the record, I like Miami to win the title again in a rematch with Oklahoma City.

    I want to address a distressing trend that continued this summer, however. For years several commentators have cried for the contraction of weak NBA teams that are generally terrible year after year, like Charlotte, Minnesota, or Golden State. The nature of basketball –- a 5-on-5 game potentially dominated by one side that fields the two best players -– makes it easy for a couple squads to collect most of the treasure year after year, and very hard to build a winning team, because the number of dominant studs (perhaps 10 or 15) is very small relative to the pool of all pro players (around 500 who are either rostered or hoping to regain a roster spot during a given season). Thus, the NBA sees the widest variance of results of any of the top North American sports leagues: the best two or three teams regularly win 75% or 80% of their games, while the worst teams win 20%. In baseball, say, the best team wins 60% of its games (winning 100 of 162 regular-season contests is a rare and historic achievement). Pro football often sees superlative (14-2) or putrid (2-14) records, but -– because (1) aggregate talent is more evenly matched in an 11-on-11 game, with separate platoons for offense and defense, and (2) non-guaranteed contracts make it easier for management to manipulate the roster each offseason -– the correlation of success from one season to the next is relatively weak. To consider the NFL’s NFC Central division, Green Bay finished 15-1 in the 2011 campaign and now is 4-3 in 2012. The Detroit Lions, which started last season 10-5, subsequently lost 6 of 8 games in calendar year 2012. The Chicago Bears were 8-8 in 2011 and now stand at 5-1; Minnesota was a lousy 3-13 last year but has started this season 5-2. (The low sample size that comprises the NFL regular season –- only 16 games –- contributes to the seemingly sharp swings of performance from one year to the next. Within a given NBA season, many teams might experience something like a 3-13 stretch and a 5-2 stretch.)

    If a few NBA teams could be eliminated and their best players handed to middle-class squads like Utah, Milwaukee, or Atlanta , the league might have greater equity of talent distribution, which would make more games 50-50 affairs. This past summer saw several trades that amounted to the fruits of a putative dispersal draft: Orlando dealt Dwight Howard and Most Improved Player Ryan Anderson, Phoenix contributed Steve Nash, Atlanta shipped out Joe Johnson, and Houston gave away all their veterans. And lo, the Magic, Suns, and Rockets are poised to be terrible this season; few fans aside from locals in those metropolises would mind if the teams disappeared. This experiment might be worthwhile if it helped some fringe playoff teams rise above their past mediocrity. But the recipients of these players were mostly not playoff hopefuls or the near-contenders like Memphis and Indiana mentioned above; rather, it was championship-caliber squads who swelled their ranks with top guys. Boston picked up former Finals starter Courtney Lee in a one-sided trade, Los Angeles added likely Hall of Famers Howard and Nash for only the weak-kneed Andrew Bynum and future draft picks; Brooklyn (née New Jersey) added Joe Johnson to a roster that already included past All-Stars Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace; and, just yesterday, Oklahoma City took perennial 20-point scorer Kevin Martin and two future lottery picks off Houston’s hands. (To be fair, Houston picked up budding star James Harden in the trade, so the deal was fair, but the Rox will struggle for a couple years with a bevy of young players. 22-year-old Harden similarly struggled in the Finals last spring.)

    Let us consider Las Vegas’s odds** on particular teams to win the 2013 NBA championship:
  • Miami – 9:4 (31% chance)
  • L.A. Lakers – 11:4 (27% chance)
  • Oklahoma City Thunder – 17:4 (19% chance)
  • Boston Celtics – 16:1 (6% chance)
  • Chicago Bulls – 16:1 (6% chance)
  • San Antonio Spurs – 16:1 (6% chance)

  • The Clippers have roughly a 4% chance in this scheme, and every other team has yet slimmer odds. If I am a typical parochially-oriented fan and my favorite team’s chance of a championship is consistently less than 5% (and the Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs have hogged those odds tables for the last five years, while the Thunder will likely receive generous odds for the rest of this decade), why should I care? It is clear that without at least two All-NBA-caliber talents on a squad, a team’s goose is headed straight for the roaster. The Detroit Pistons of 2004 are commonly presented as the rare starless team that won a championship and managed to sustain contendership for several seasons, but they featured Ben Wallace (four All-NBA selections), Rasheed Wallace (four All-Star selections), and Chauncey Billups (five All-Star selections and three All-NBA selections).

    If a team cannot snag a Hall of Fame-level player via draft or free agency, it has little hope of winning. Consider, for example, the Toronto Raptors. They won the NBA’s top draft pick in 2006, when the best players available were Andrea Bargnani, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Randy Foye. Had they won that pick in 2003 (James, Wade), 2004 (Dwight Howard), 2005 (Paul, Bogut, Williams), 2007 (Durant or even Oden, who likely could have seen a promising career with better medical treatment), 2008 (Rose, Westbrook, Love), or 2009 (Griffin), the Raptors might be building a championship squad now. They have never been able to draft a superstar, instead choosing secondary stars like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh who could not alone lead the team to relevancy and left the cold climes of T.O, barren of basketball lucre, at the first opportunity. The Raptors’ poor draft timing was not the “fault” of the organization, but the result is just as maddening. But that’s basketball, right? It’s a five-on-five game and a couple top guys are necessary and nearly sufficient to win. That has been true since Russell and Cousy clambered across the parquet in Boston .

    A few prescriptions have been thrown out to prevent too much clustering of talent: a “franchise” tag, as the NFL uses, to deny free agency to one star per team (but this seems arbitrary and mean); financial incentives like the “luxury tax” to discourage high aggregate team salary (but the threshold for punishment has been set high enough relative to individual salaries so that three great players can still comfortably sit on one team’s payroll); and removing the cap on individual salaries. It is this final step that I am beginning to favor. Without an individual cap (the “max” rule), LeBron James would command at least $30 million in an open bidding war instead of $16 million. Adding Dwyane Wade next to him would put aggregate salary close to $60 million just for those guys, and even if the luxury tax line were retained at its current level (around $70 million) rather than reduced, no team could field a profitable and effective squad around these two players. Stars like James and Wade (or Durant and Westbrook) might agree to take a small bit less than $30 MM for the organization’s benefit, but the haircut would not be enough to make the union of two of these guys feasible. 

    So those are my thoughts on an owners' agenda for the next collective bargaining round in a few years. The union would likely oppose this, because with the total nominal dollars of league-wide player salary essentially fixed by the CBA (it is a linear function of revenue, which no clever agent can do much to change), increasing salaries for a few superstars would mean a reduction of salary for everyone else.

    At any rate, let's play ball! =========================================================
    **These are not necessarily Vegas’s best guesses of probabilities, but rather the lines that bring in equal money on both sides of the respective bet. Perhaps bettors with parochial allegiances consistently over-rate their team’s chances, inflating the Vegas odds above the “true” value. I mention this largely to explain why the numbers sum to over 100%.

    Monday, June 4, 2012

    In Miami, "Still The Same" Not Just A Bob Seger Song

    Sebastian Pruiti of Grantland has a great illustrated article this morning analyzing the Heat's offensive action on their final play of overtime in last night's Eastern Conference Finals Game 4.  In peering at the tiny images of black-jerseyed men, what I found interesting is that, with Chris Bosh injured and LeBron James disqualified with 6 fouls, the Heat's remaining lineup in overtime was essentially their 2009-10 pre-Decision squad: James Jones, Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, and Dwyane Wade, with a newcomer, Shane Battier, ably filling the lanky silhouette of Michael Beasley.  (Another player from the 2009-10 roster, Joel Anthony, started the game at center for Miami last night and played 15 minutes.)  Boston, with the same four stars that they now field, made short work of that Miami squad two springs ago, winning the first three games and finishing the Heat in the fifth.  The stat lines of Boston's top guys have not changed much since 2010's Game 4:  Rondo delivered 23 and 9 then, 15 and 15 yesterday.  Garnett posted 18 and 12 then, matched by 17 and 14 this year.  Pierce and Allen scored 16 and 15 then; they put up 23 and 16 last night.

    What is worth marveling at is that Miami's holdover supporting players from 2009-10 -- Anthony, Chalmers, Jones, and Haslem -- were not even starters then on a mediocre team.  Miami's starters from the 2010 playoff series -- Jermaine O'Neal, Beasley, Quentin Richardson and Carlos Arroyo -- have long since been jettisoned.  Miami's overtime squad last night consisted of Dwyane Wade and a bunch of nobodies.  (Well, and the No-Stats All-Star.)  It would have been embarrassing, really, if the Celtics could not finish them off.  Yet Miami almost won, succumbing at the end when Wade's open three-pointer rimmed out.  Coach Erik Spoelstra, also a mainstay since before James and Bosh came aboard, has succeeded in inspiring these lesser players to play with the ruthless aggression modeled each night by the Heat's two star wings.

    Friday, May 25, 2012

    The 2011-12 All-NBA Teams

    The All-NBA Teams were announced yesterday.  Below is a review of the results and my commentary.

    First Team: Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul
    Second Team: Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker
    Third Team: Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade

    Comment: Paul played excellently in lifting the Clippers -- a motley bunch of very young players and old hangers-on -- to the status of a fringe contender.  Bryant played well, but took too many shots and made too few of them, averaging 10 of 23 from the field and posting the second-highest usage rate of his career (behind only his 2005-06 campaign, the season of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown).  Parker, who led San Antonio to the best record in the West, probably deserved a spot on the First Team.  Otherwise, the list is unimpeachable: Steve Nash and James Harden could have made a case for inclusion, but it is difficult to remove any of the six honorees from their spots.  Westbrook was a freak, Wade was great, and Rondo brought the Celtics back from despair after they entered the All-Star break with more losses than wins.  Rondo actually ended up leading the league in assists per game.  Several former mainstays of this accolade -- Joe Johnson, Derrick Rose, Manu Ginobili, and Deron Williams -- were either injured or lethargic or both this season and did not distinguish themselves.

    First Team: Dwight Howard
    Second Team: Andrew Bynum
    Third Team: Tyson Chandler

    Comment: Who can argue with this list?
    Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe, Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Marcin Gortat, Al Jefferson, and Kevin Garnett also deserve mention.  Hibbert, alone among these gentlemen, has the towering stature that David Robinson and Patrick Ewing carried throughout the '90s.  If he can harness his build with the jump-shooting and intimidation skills of the former Spur and former Knick, his place on the All-NBA team will eventually be sealed.  Garnett nominally played center after Jermaine O'Neal left the team; the fairly wiry Bass-Garnett frontcourt was their most common and also most effective.  Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins showed tons of promise on offense, but a 45% field-goal percentage mark is not enough to invite double-teams and properly power an offense.

    Tim Duncan played like an All-Star in his 28 minutes per game this season; his per-game statistics (18 points, 9 boards, 2 blocks, and nearly 80% from the free-throw line) would have been transcendent if he played, say, 36 minutes per game like a star center in his prime.  However, I cannot choose a half-time contributor for the All-NBA list.

    First Team: LeBron James, Kevin Durant
    Second Team: Kevin Love, Blake Griffin
    Third Team: Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki

    Comment: JPO would probably put Andre Iguodala and LaMarcus Aldridge on the Third Team ahead of Anthony and Nowitzki.  Anthony shot a low percentage all season and missed several games in February during Jeremy Lin's rise to fame.  Nowitzki played poorly in January (15 points, 6 rebounds) and averaged only 21.6 points for the whole season, hardly matching his usual standards.  This was also the seventh consecutive season in which his per-game board numbers dipped from the previous season.  Love was a monster producer on the offensive end, and he ranked twelfth in the league in Adjusted Plus-Minus, showing that his defensive efforts are not as lackluster as commonly advertised.  Griffin was very good offensively, though his defense needs work: witness how Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter ate him for breakfast in the just-completed Spurs-Clippers series.  

    Paul Pierce, Luol Deng, Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Chris Bosh, and Paul Millsap also deserve mention.  Ultimately, the two-way ability of Iguodala and Aldridge puts them in my top six in this category; Deng and Smith also balled hard on defense, but the Sixer and the Blazer balled a bit harder.

    Other than all the players I mentioned above, other players receiving votes from the official panel include Monta Ellis, Luis Scola, David Lee, Danny Granger, and Serge Ibaka.  Sorry, but these votes must be a joke.

    Tuesday, May 8, 2012

    LeBron James and the Men of Causeway Street

    With Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami all leading their respective series 3-1, chances are that we will eventually get another pairing of LeBron James against the Boston Celtics later this spring.  (While there is no guarantee that Miami will knock off the Knicks, Boston will best Atlanta, the 76ers will defeat Chicago, Miami will take out the Indiana/Orlando winner, and Boston will eliminate the Sixers -- in fact, the compound probability of all these events happening is probably under 50 percent -- this is the likeliest of the various possible scenarios.)  Below, JPO takes a look back at the last three meetings of James's teams against the men in green.

    2008: The 66-win Celtics had an awfully hard time defeating their Eastern foes this year on their way to an eventual championship, requiring seven games to get past sub-.500 Atlanta and barely eking past James's Cavaliers (featuring the decidedly mediocre Delonte West, Joe Smith, Wally Szcerbiak, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and an aging Ben Wallace).  James, though, shot only 35 percent from the field for the series and could not master the parquet floor at TD Garden: Boston won all four of its home games.  While the first six games were largely defensive struggles (Cleveland averaged 84 points through the first 6), James and Paul Pierce set precedent aside and combined for 86 points in the deciding Game 7.  Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett, who was Defensive Player of the Year that season, contributed 13 and 13.  Thanks to a better free-throw performance (82 percent out of 34 tries, versus 71 percent out of 35 tries for Cleveland) the Celtics won the game by just 5 points.  After the contest, James was oddly unfazed by what was surely a crushing loss, referring to himself as a "fan of the game" and a "winner".  Boston later took down the Pistons (making the last of their six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances) in six games and the L.A. Lakers in six, celebrating the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the middle of June.

    2010: After easily defeating a very young, eighth-seeded Chicago team (featuring the same core players -- Rose, Deng, Noah, Gibson -- who would finish with the East's best record in each of the next two seasons) James's Cavaliers met Boston in the conference semifinals again.  Until that point, Boston had looked sluggish all season; I recall that Kevin Garnett, still recovering from knee surgery after the 2009 playoffs, could barely keep up with Orlando's Rashard Lewis (hardly a noted speedster) in one mid-season televised contest.  The Celtics began the season 23-5, but then won only half of their remaining games, finishing 50-32.  They were hardly a good bet to make noise in the playoffs.  But against Cleveland, the Celtics were able to recreate their fire of '08, nabbing Game 2 in Cleveland and then Games 4, 5, and 6 to finish things.  Cleveland's loss to Orlando in the 2009 conference finals was surprising but still valiant; in this 2010 series, though, complaints about James "quitting" first arose.  I watched the pivotal Game 5 with my former co-blogger (who still lurks on this site and lobs idle chatter my way over email) on my sofa while he visited my town for some professional pontification.  We gaped as Boston piled up a 26-point margin in the second half alone (building on a slim 6-point halftime lead) to embarrass the Cavs on their home court.  James shot only 3 of 14 and looked uninterested at times (sparking speculation that he just wanted to end the season with failure so he could more easily leave Cleveland as a free agent); meanwhile, Ray Allen hit six three-pointers as the Celtics rolled.  In Game 6, James delivered 27 points and 19 rebounds, but his teammates did little; ballyhooed trade acquisition Antawn Jamison produced only 5 and 5.  20-10 games from both Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo paced the Celtics as they defeated Cleveland 94-85 in a game that was never quite that close.  Following Game 6, James poignantly referred to his second loss to the Celtics as a "nightmare" that was impeding his dream:

    2011: By this time, James had migrated down to Miami, bringing Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, and Ilgauskas with him.  (As I noted in a post at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Miami had more continuity in that campaign than has been usually recognized; they returned their head coach and 7 or 8 roster members from the desultory 2009-10 squad.)  In yet another second-round matchup last spring, James finally felled the proud Celtics, quickly dispatching them in five games before moving on to face Chicago in the conference finals.  Injuries to Shaquille O'Neal (heel, calf) and Rajon Rondo (elbow) truncated this series from what could have been another all-timer.  Boston's February trade of center Kendrick Perkins proved to be a bad gamble, at least in retrospect, as neither of Boston's O'Neals could contribute much in the middle, and Jeff Green proved ineffective against Boston's wing threats.  In the Heat's clinching Game 5, James and Wade simply outraced Green, Allen, and Pierce all over the court, pouring in 33 and 34 points, respectively.  Following the game, James knelt briefly on the court, likely overtaken with emotion after finally defeating his inveterate tormentor.  His vindication, though, did not lead to a championship last spring, and he may need to do everything one more time in late May and early June if his team and Boston advance to the conference finals.

    Sunday, May 6, 2012

    C-Webb's Refreshing Commentary

    I am a big fan of Shaq the basketball player, Shaq the personality, and Shaq the philosopher. I am less a fan of Shaq as the fourth member of the TNT studio crew.  It's not that Shaq has done a particularly poor job.  My concern is that his dominating personality interferes with the legendary chemistry that Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley shared for so many years.

    However, one welcome collateral effect of Shaq's arrival in the studio has been forcing Chris Webber -- a frequent guest on the TNT studio crew in years past -- to slide down to courtside to provide gametime colour commentary.  C-Webb has thrived in this role.  Although a relative novice, he may be the best colour commentator on the national broadcasts.  He is articulate, charming, humorous, and most importantly, he provides REAL analysis. Many of the other colour commentators (e.g., Hubie Brown) merely recite cliches, read off the stat sheets provided to them by the producers, and/or describe what has just happened on the floor (a redundancy if you have been either watching the game or listening to the play-by-play announcer).    C-Webb actually provides real insight into teams' strategies and as to what players and coaches might be thinking at a given moment.  His unique ability in this role may be partly due to being a recently retired player himself.  Or it may be due to the fact that he actually respects the intelligence of the fans watching the game.

    Either way, it's another reason to prefer the TNT telecasts over ESPN...

    Sunday, April 29, 2012

    HOSS Thoughts On Day 1

    1. LeBron James Has Resurrected His 2007 Self

    Everyone remembers where they were when LeBron James went into Super Human mode against the Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007.  In that shocking display of offensive brilliance, LeBron poured in 48 points -- including his team's final 25 and 29 of its final 30 -- and singlehandedly carried the Cavs within a win of the NBA finals against a much more talented Detroit Pistons team.   

    The stakes were not quite as high in yesterday's Round 1, Game 1 match-up against the New York Knicks.  But yesterday was the closest I've seen James -- in the playoffs -- replicate his 2007 self.  The game was over by the end of the second quarter due in large part to James.  I'm convinced that in the 2nd quarter LeBron could have played 1-on-5 against the Knicks.  He went for 23 in the first half on a ridiculously efficient 6-for-7 shooting from the field and 10-for-13 from the line.  He also dominated the defensive side of the ball, taking charges, blocking shots and helping embarrass Carmelo Anthony into a very poor performance.

    2. Magic vs. Pacers

    This was the only game yesterday that I did not DVR.  I should have.  Who would have thought that the Dwight Howard-less Magic would steal Game 1 on the road against new darlings of the NBA?  I love this game.

    3. Thunder vs. Mavs

    This will be a GREAT series.  Rarely do we get such a treat in the first round.  Forget the seeding.  The Mavs are the defending champs with about 560,000 games of combined playoff experience among Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd.  It's the consummate battle of the old guard against the new kids on the block.  Talent vs. experience.

    And how can one not root for OKC?  The nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka is not only insanely talented, but also seem like a very classy and unselfish bunch of young men.  

    All that said, I agree with my brother-in-blogging Bhel Atlantic that the Thunder were very fortunate to escape Game 1 with a victory.  I expect each game of this series to be just as exciting.

    4. Bulls vs. Sixers

    Ouch.  Sad day for the NBA when one of its most exciting young players is taken out of the playoffs due to injury.  JPO wishes Derrick Rose a speedy recovery.

    Thoughts on Day 1

    Some thoughts on the first day of the NBA playoffs:

    * Joakim Noah was a French-Swedish-Cameroonian-Yankee-Gator terror for Chicago, grabbing every board in sight and jamming home dunks with a ferocity that must have scared Spencer Hawes, his fellow 2007 draftee.  Sadly, Derrick Rose suffered a devastating injury in the final two minutes of the game.  Rose's body has been unsturdy all season, and poor muscle alignment may have contributed to his ligament tear.  With Dwight Howard and Rose out of the Eastern playoffs (and Ray Allen hobbled), the Miami Heat should have a relatively easy team breezing through the first three rounds.

    * For the skipper of a battered team, Orlando's Jameer Nelson appeared oddly confident in the TV interview closing the first half, and this joie de vivre carried through the whole game.  With Hedo Turkoglu back in action, the Magic have their whole squad intact without injured center Dwight Howard.  Forward-sized Glen Davis put up big numbers in the middle for Orlando, and Indiana's smallish guards could not conjure any offense in the closing minutes.

    * Save for the Western finals of '09, this is the biggest series of Carmelo Anthony's career, yet he allowed his longtime friend and rival LeBron James to repeatedly outplay him yesterday afternoon, capped by a long straight-on three-pointer that James drilled in the fourth with Anthony attempting to face-guard the bigger man.  With Iman Shumpert also tearing a knee ligament, sadly, in yesterday's game, Knicks are now down two talented young guards.  Still, Baron Davis and J.R. Smith are gamers and can at least match the combined scoring output of Wade and Chalmers.  The Knicks' front line should be able to dominate Chris Bosh and company; let us see if they can vindicate their fat contracts.

    * The Thunder were fortunate to pull out a victory in the day's final contest.  Jason Kidd, who has looked remarkably slow and ineffective all season (this was his first season without a triple-double), was just as spry as he looked last spring while defending Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and James on the Mavs' path to a championship.  Recall his hustle play late in the fourth quarter last night to beat James Harden to a loose ball, then fling it cross-court to a teammate from a seated position before Thunder defenders could swarm him.  The Thunder's top four players put up 19, 22, 25, and 28 points on the ticker, but the team still needed a lucky bounce with 2 seconds left to put away the Mavericks.  An early loss could have deflated the Thunder; Dallas's moral victory may propel them to more success.

    Sunday, March 18, 2012

    Phoenix is, er, Moving Up In The World

    The Suns, previously scorned as a lottery consignee not worthy of Steve Nash's talents, are now 23-22 after defeating Houston by 13 tonight. The Suns have won 11 of 14 games and are now just 1 win back of Houston, which holds the 8th playoff position in the Western Conference. Lost earlier in the season, Coach Alvin Gentry has whipped his charges into shape by sitting free-agent disappointments from 2010 (Warrick, Childress), running his offense around pick-and-rolls with Marcin Gortat, and letting Jared Dudley bother opponents at both ends. Gentry, like Gregg Popovich in South Texas, wisely sits his older players at opportune moments; Nash and Grant Hill did not touch the floor last week in a road game against the Clippers, the middle frame of a back-to-back-to-back set. Stupendously, the Suns found a way to win the game anyway. And for Phoenix owner Robert Sarver, who values financial performance a bit more than other owners who crave a championship, a fringe playoff contender with Steve Nash on the roster puts more butts in seats than Sebastian Telfair and Markieff Morris would.

    But Phoenix is not the only Western team to defy expectations. Utah, which was, following the February 2011 trade of Deron Williams, billed as a rebuilding team featuring four rookies or second-year players, also sits at 23-22 and will likely battle until late April for that final playoff spot. The Jazz's decision to sign veteran free agents Raja Bell and Josh Howard, and not to trade veterans Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Devin Harris, looked questionable in the frenzied fortnight of roster building last December after the lockout. With so much young talent, Utah need not worry so much about winning games, went the thinking. But the strategy has paid off: Hayward, Favors, Burks, and Kanter are beginning to thrive, and occasional (but not daily) starts have helped them ease into stardom. Better to develop them in a winning culture than a Bobcats-like woebegone culture. And the flip side of amassing FOUR lottery picks is that more top young talent would do more harm than good, messing with floor chemistry and team economics. So Utah has no need to "tank" this season. And with the NCAA men's basketball tournament running this month, let us not forget that Hayward came within a few centimeters of leading his team to the national championship two years ago. That guy is really good!

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012

    Shaq Wants to Retroactively Adjust Some Hardware

    Shaquille O'Neal has become remarkably outspoken, even by his standards, since retiring from active play last June. Unfortunately, his outbursts are too often colored by personal spite rather than sober analysis. For example, last month he labelled Andrew Bynum the league's best big man, forsaking Dwight Howard, whom every other observer considers the strongest 5. Shaq's pique likely stems from Howard's appropriation of the "Superman" nickname, which we discussed at length in this 2009 post. O'Neal has a "Superman" tattoo on his arm and considers himself the original owner of said moniker (I don't know if any actual intellectual property is involved, as was the case in Jeremy Lin's situation that we discussed yesterday).

    Today an interview emerged in which O'Neal suggests that Steve Nash did not deserve the MVP awards he won in 2005 and 2006. O'Neal is likely still miffed that he did not win the 2004-05 prize (indeed, contemporaneous scribes back then hinted that racism might be responsible) after he arrived from the Lakers and turned Miami into a championship contender. But let us turn to the numbers.

    Phoenix: 29 wins
    Miami: 42 wins

    Phoenix: 62 wins
    Miami: 59 wins

    Evidently, Nash's arrival in Phoenix (holding constant the previous core of Marion, Johnson, and Stoudemire) resulted in 33 more victories, while O'Neal's introduction to Miami (joining a holdover group of Wade, E. Jones, and Haslem) led to 17 more Ws. Let us recall that Phoenix was putrid the previous year (to be fair, they traded Stephon Marbury early that season and had no point guard for most of the campaign) while Miami without Shaq (and with Caron Butler + Lamar Odom) was a solid team that reached the '04 playoffs' second round.

    We could probe the change in fortunes of the Lakers (O'Neal's former team) and the Mavericks (Nash's former team) but too many factors there changed from 2003-04 to 2004-05: the Lakers lost Karl Malone, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Gary Payton, in addition to the big LSU alum. The Mavericks traded away Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker for Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry, respectively. Examining those teams' transitions would not tell us much about the causal force of O'Neal or Nash.

    In 2006, O'Neal was not an MVP candidate, as his performance slipped while Dwyane Wade became a superstar, and his team's performance dropped to 52 wins despite a revamping of the roster with several accomplished veterans. Meanwhile, Nash steered his team to 54 wins with Amare Stoudemire injured the whole season and Boris Diaw manning the center position. To be fair, several other players including Nowitzki, James, Bryant, Wade, Brand, Duncan, and Billups did just as much that season to push their respective teams to a high level of play. But Shaquille O'Neal had no claim on the award that year.

    It appears that Nash was incredibly valuable on Phoenix (and the regular-season success proved to be no chimera, as the Suns easily made the conference finals twice) while O'Neal's boost to Miami was not as robust. O'Neal did help to deliver a championship to South Florida, but most valuable player of the league? Didn't happen.