Friday, June 19, 2009

Those Magic Changes

As the ’00s (the “oughts”, right?) near their end, I anticipate a host of popular journalism reviewing the best of the decade in a variety of fields: business, music, film, politics. Sadly, these were not ten great years for innovation or domination. The Big Three car companies in the U.S. gave us nothing good, and now face bankruptcy. Microsoft still can’t make a satisfying version of Windows. Besides teeny boppers and Idol champs, have any great musical heroes or new genres of songsters emerged? Hip-hop lost its roots as a genre fueled by exhorting prophets, and now, apparently, seems merely a marketing tool for the hard liquor industry. Besides Barack Obama and Junichiro Koizumi, there were no political leaders who inspired us or threw fresh ideas into the pot. Arnold Schwarzenegger has run his state into fiscal hell. (Unfortunately for California, the federal bankruptcy code only covers towns, not states.) In the prior decade, we had Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Mike Harris, Newt Gingrich, Mohammed Khatami, Boris Yeltsin, and even the Texas-era George W. Bush, who introduced useful reforms on school accountability.

Basketball is no more or less susceptible to whitewater rapids trips down the chasm of greatness. The ’80s gave us Bird, Johnson, McHale, Thomas, Worthy, Wilkins, Drexler, Barkley, Jordan, Olajuwon, Stockton, Malone, Ewing, Dumars, Pippen, Robinson. [I am fudging a bit on Bird and Magic, given that they debuted in the fall of ’79.] The Nineties, though… well, can you name five Hall of Fame-level players drafted in that decade? O’Neal, Garnett, Bryant, Duncan for sure. Maybe Payton, Kidd, Nash, Allen, Iverson, Billups, Pierce, or Nowitzki, but maybe not. Bonfires of raw ridiculousness like Webber, Mourning, McGrady, Hardaway, and Hill saw their careers curtailed by injury.

(Compare this to the babies of the Oughts, full of probable all-timers: Gasol, Yao, Ginobili, James, Wade, Anthony, Howard, Paul, Roy, Durant, Rose. Others like Parker, Arenas, Stoudemire, Bosh, D.Williams, and even Blake Griffin might get there if they raise their game in coming years.)

As a result of the dearth of quality talent among Nineties-vintage stars,this past decade was simply not an exciting time for pro basketball. Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan won eight championships in the nine seasons after Michael Jordan left the Bulls, and their Finals foes were never very intimidating.

Instinctually, it seems that the team of the decade was the San Antonio Spurs, the only team to win 50 games in each of all ten seasons. Three of those ended with a title. The Spurs actually presaged their dominance in the abbreviated 1998-99 season, as Duncan and Robinson obliterated their competition on their way to a championship.

The Shaq-&-Kobe-powered Lakers reached 50 wins in each of the first five years of the decade, and then Bryant plus Gasol and Odom did it again in 2007-08 and 2008-09. They also made the playoffs in ’06 and ’07, as Bryant led a team of laggards including Kwame Brown and Smush Parker to the first round. The Lakers reached (and won) six conference finals, and won four of the six NBA Finals they played in. Had Shaquille O’Neal not left the team in 2004, the Lakers probably would have amassed five or six total championships.

Various Western teams threatened the dominance of L.A. and San Antonio. Phoenix reached 50 wins with Jason Kidd in ’00 and ’01, then had four hot years in the middle of the decade with Steve Nash, but never reached the NBA Finals, due to untimely injuries, bad luck, and general nincompoop-ism. Sacramento won 50 games in each season from 2000-01 to 2004-05, but quickly fell off a cliff after trading Chris Webber and discarding the rest of their core. Utah won 50 games with the fading Stockton-Malone system in ’00 and ’01, and more recently won 50 in each of the last three seasons with Boozer, Williams, and Kirilenko. However, the Lakers and Spurs easily repelled Utah in the postseason following each of those latter campaigns. Houston won 50 games with their Yao-McGrady teams in each of ’05, ’07, ’08, and ’09, but could not go far in the playoffs, usually because Yao or McGrady or both were injured.

Actually, the second team that maintained greatness throughout the decade (besides the Spurs) was not LAL, but DAL. This past April, Dallas reached 50 victories for, incredibly, the ninth consecutive season. In those nine seasons, they made the playoffs nine times, reached two conference finals, reached one NBA Finals, and rocked to the best record in the league in ’07. For critics who call Dirk Nowitzki soft, that is an amazing record of achievement.

In the East, there’s not much greatness to be found. Orlando was okay with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, then good-to-great with Dwight Howard. New Jersey somehow won two conference titles with only 52 and 49 wins, then hovered in the forty-something win range during four more years until Jason Kidd left. Boston was, frankly, quite sucky with Paul Pierce (averaging only 37.8 wins in the eight seasons before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen moved there), then had two great years.

Two teams really stand out as attaining some level of sustained excellence in this decade: first, and most obviously, Detroit attained 50 wins for seven consecutive years from 2001-02 to 2007-08. Detroit made the playoffs in every year of this decade but 2000-01 (a Grant Hill-led team squeaked into the playoffs in ’00 with a 42-40 record). The Pistons made two NBA Finals and won one, losing Game 7 in their effort to repeat. That’s really quite stunning for a team lacking a super-duper star. What’s more, they accomplished this under three different coaches!

Second, the Miami Heat had a desultory series of moments, reaching the playoffs with very different looks: first, the Mourning-Hardaway-Brown-Mashburn squad that achieved so much success in the late ‘90s; then a brand-new team of Bruce Bowen, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, and Anthony Mason plugged in around Hardaway; then the jolly rogues of Dwyane Wade, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Udonis Haslem, Grant and Jones; then the golden aspirants of Wade, Haslem, Jones, Shaquille O’Neal, and Mourning; then the previous quintet minus Jones and with Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, and James Posey; and finally, in 2009, a stripped-down bunch with Wade, Haslem, and a buttload of rookies. Ultimately, Miami reached the playoffs in seven of ten seasons, and secured a championship at its highest point.

Anyway, raw data showing the win totals for every NBA team in every season of this decade (1999-2000 through 2008-2009) can be viewed at this Google Docs spreadsheet. Any errors are mine; I constructed the spreadsheet by hand from data on

What numerical conclusions can we draw? The teams with the greatest variance in performance were Sacramento, Cleveland, Miami, and Minnesota, which had some spectacular seasons (with Webber, James, Wade, and Garnett, respectively) and some horrendous seasons without them. Memphis’s variance is slightly below that, which surprises me, given that the Grizz had seven 20-win seasons and three playoff seasons. I would have expected them to have, numerically, the greatest win variance of any team.

The most consistent teams in terms of variance are the Spurs (consistently great), the Bobcats (consistently putrid), then Philadelphia (always mediocre), Dallas (consistently great), and Milwaukee (also always mediocre, making the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals the blandest big-time playoff series ever).

The most successful teams over the decade are the Spurs (57.6 wins on average), the Mavs (54.8 wins), the Lakers (53.0), the Pistons (49.7), and the Suns (49.1). No other team comes particularly close to the Suns’ mark. The worst teams are the Bobcats (natch) with 28.8 wins, Atlanta, Memphis, the Clippers, and Chicago. How embarrassing for the Bulls: after dominating the ‘90s, they were in the league’s bottom five the following decade. Even top-five draft picks in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008 (not to mention the 7th pick in 2003) could not vault them to one single fifty-win season.

It is easy to predict the best teams of the coming decade. Miami with Dwyane Wade, Orlando with Dwight Howard, Portland with Brandon Roy, and Chicago with Derrick Rose will be awesome. Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant will be on that list, but we must first wait to learn whether they will stay with their current small-market teams. The L.A. Lakers will likely do very well in the first part of the decade, but may suffer some privations when Kobe Bryant eventually quits. Boston has one or two strong seasons left, but will then crumble to dust when its aging stars leave or retire. Same for the Spurs; like Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker is no Isiah.

Check in June of 2019 for an evaluation of these predictions!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Gog and Magog

The potential clinching game of the NBA Finals is tonight. Yet why is this the headline on ESPN's NBA homepage? Weren't these guys finished weeks or months ago? Note that to find content about the Magic and Lakers, one needs to click the link just below "The Taking of Pelham 123". Funny enough, that movie was originally released in 1974, shortly after Shaquille O'Neal's birth.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

So long, Magic Dynasty

Magic fans will likely be hurting from Thursday night's collapse for years. For the Magic, there is no "wait til next year" because their best scorer, Hedo Turkoglu, will be wearing another team's colors come next season.

Turkoglu has a player option for the 2009-10 season for $7.36 million, but recent reports indicate that he will opt out of his contract. And let's be honest: he'd have to be crazy not to do so. Turk has shown his mettle these playoffs, solidifying his place in the game as one of the game's best clutch shooters. The playoffs have also given Turkoglu to showcase his other talents -- his ability to get off his own shot from anywhere on the court; his ball handling skills (the Magic's offense flows through him on most of the Magic's half-court sets); and even his hitherto unknown defensive talents (that block on Kobe in Game 2 will have Kobe seething for months). Make no mistake: This is Superman's team, but when the Magic need to score, the ball will be in Turkoglu's hands.

The Magic just can't afford to re-sign Turkoglu at market price. The Magic's GM, Otis Smith, assured this two years ago when they inked Rashard Lewis to a 6-year $113 million max contract. I'm sure that it's not lost on Turkoglu (or on Dwight Howard) that one-dimensional, inconsistent Rashard Lewis makes significantly more than anyone on the team. But egos aside, with Dwight Howard on the books for $15.1 million next season and Lewis set to make $18 million next season, the Magic don't have space for a third player making near-max money. (Magic management have already indicated that they are loath to pay the luxury tax. )

Look for Turkoglu in a Raptors uniform next season. In addition to GM Bryan Colangelo's European fetish, the Raptors are badly in need of someone who can create his own shot and someone who can handle the ball. Turkoglu does both.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Still Just A Rat In A Cage

This is hardly an Orlando Magic blog – far from it. I revealed long ago that my sympathies belong with the Pistons (and my somnolent co-bloggers are fans of the Celtics and Raptors). But the Magic’s presence in these Finals has provided a stready stream of megajoules to my blogging circuitry. There is just so much to say about them.

I have to admit that I love this VitaminWater commercial featuring Dwight Howard.

The production costs for this 30-second spot were likely far below the cost to animate the “Most Valuable Puppets” or to shoot Chuck and Dwyane “eating the head!” in a Chinese restaurant. The producers simply sat Howard down, gave him a couple changes of clothes, and asked him to recite a few goofy lines. (Here is a video of the outtakes from filming, which suggests to me that there wasn’t much of a script.) Total filming time, including lighting and set design, was probably no more than a couple hours.

The music also adds much to this spot, adding a purpose and nobility to the absurd content of his ravings. I like how the strings slowly build to a crescendo, upon which we learn that Dwight “definitely gets his vitamins.”

As a postscript, what’s up with the use of “Glaceau” as the parent brand of VitaminWater? This is a Coca-Cola product, as are Dasani, Sprite, Schweppes, Thums Up, Nestea, Odwalla, Minute Maid, Powerade, A&W, Fanta, Fresca, Dr Pepper, Canada Dry... Incidentally, the inattention of federal regulators to antitrust/competition law during the entire Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era gave us monstrous creatures like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron-Texaco, Time Warner-Turner, Citicorp-Travellers, Pfizer-Wyeth, and Pepsi-Quaker Oats. In the beverage space, Coca-Cola seems to control every non-alcoholic drink known to man. This cannot be wise.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, Men Have Named You

Q: What do Hedo Turkoglu, Rafer Alston, Dwight Howard, Mickael Pietrus, Tony Battie, and J.J. Redick have in common? (in contradistinction to their teammates Nelson, Lewis, Lee, and Gortat?) Answer below.

A: None of them has a tattoo!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Straight, No Chaser

Towards the end of overtime in last night's Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Lakers took the ball with about 27 seconds left and a 3-point lead. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy (or was it Mark Jackson?) argued that Orlando should foul immediately. I thought this was bad advice. If you foul an 80% free-throw shooter, then there's a 64% chance that he'll make both shots and you'll be down by 5 points, and a 32% chance that he'll make only 1 shot and you'll be down by 4 points. There's only a 4% chance that he'll miss both shots and you'll have a chance to tie the game! My advice would be to try for a defensive stop and get the ball back. Granted, as Van Gundy observed, if the Lakers simply held the ball for 24 seconds, they would leave Orlando with only 3 seconds remaining to put a shot together. But they probably would not do that; rather, they would try for a score to augment their lead. This gives Orlando opportunity to either get a steal or a stop well before 24 seconds elapsed. It might not work, but the probability of success would probably be over 4 percent.

In the event, Orlando adopted perhaps a compromise strategy between my advice and Van Gundy's: they trapped the Lakers on the inbound pass (which was in the backcourt) and tried to effect either a steal or an 8-second violation. When this failed and the Lakers successfully advanced the ball across the half-court line, Orlando immediately fouled with 22 seconds left. They smartly chose to foul Lamar Odom, who is only a 62.3% free throw shooter (thus, a 14% chance that he would miss both, but an 86% chance that he would make at least one shot and make it a two-possession game). In the event, Odom made two free throws, Redick and Lewis missed three-pointers, and the ballgame ended as Jack Nicholson rose to congratulate the Magic's stars. A Coach Bhel would have handled things differently.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

One Long Sleepless Night

What I find most amazing about Orlando’s success is that it comes despite a series of terrible decisions by the general manager, Otis Smith. Firstly, he tried to hire University of Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan as his new coach in 2007, before Donovan changed his mind five days after signing his contract. If you have an MVP-caliber player on your roster, your next coaching hire should represent an affirmative answer to the question, “Could I imagine this coach leading us to victory in the NBA Finals?” While Donovan won two championships as a college coach, the list of college coaches with NO pro experience who have succeeded in the big leagues is nil, to the best of my knowledge. Smith was rescued from his enormous blunder when Donovan took a hike and Stan Van Gundy agreed to coach Orlando. Van Gundy had already proved he could manage a team of raging adults when he took a young Butler-Odom-Wade-Jones-Haslem-Grant team to the second round of the playoffs in 2004 and took a team of Shaquille O’Neal plus Wade, Jones, and Haslem to a couple smiles of fortune away from the NBA Finals against the Pistons the next year. All parties are better off with the eventual coaching allocation.

Orlando, under previous general manager John Weisbrod, had a great summer in 2004, hauling two good draft picks in Nelson and Howard, and signing Hedo Turkoglu as a free agent. When Smith took over in June 2005, though, the general tenor of team management turned awful (or offal?). Orlando’s 2005 draft pick, Spanish center Fran Vázquez, refused to leave Europe despite earlier americophilic statements, and 2006’s draft pick, college yeoman J.J. Redick, proved to be a small and jittery shooter in the pros. In place of Vazquez, Orlando could have taken Danny Granger, Nate Robinson, Jason Maxiell, Linas Kleiza, David Lee, Monta Ellis … or if a center Smith coveted, Andray Blatche and Ronny Turiaf were available. In Redick’s stead, Orlando could have chosen athletic off-guards like Ronnie Brewer or Thabo Sefolosha. A host of point guards, including guys now manning contenders including Rajon Rondo, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, and Kyle Lowry, were available in '06 as well; it would have been nice to have a feisty backup when Jameer Nelson was injured in February 2009.

Smith had a fine 2007, picking up Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat as free agents. However, he blundered quite a bit in trading Trevor Ariza, a skilled wing defender, to the Lakers for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans, neither of whom provide any of the oomph that T.A. does. To be sure, Ariza never showed any aptitude for three-point shooting or steals in the early part of his career, and he has burnished those skills in Los Angeles through extensive and patient practice. Still, Ariza was too athletic to discard so quickly. The 2008-09 period also worked out well for Smith, as described here: he drafted Courtney Lee and signed Mickael Pietrus and Anthony Johnson; later, he acquired Rafer Alston by trade when Nelson injured his shoulder.

I think this story illustrates that blunders in roster management are easily fixable. If Ariza were still on the roster, Smith would not have had reason or financial room to sign Pietrus; if a young PG like Farmar were understudying Nelson when the latter got injured, Farmar would have been thrust into the starting role, which frankly would not have got them to the Finals. (And acquiring Brian Cook later helped Smith acquire Alston.) It would have been nice if Fran Vazquez decided to play Stateside, but Marcin Gortat ably fills his role. But, but! — not all general managers are able to cleanse their errors. Whether out of misguided loyalty, unreasonable optimism, or a refusal to recognize one’s own poor judgment, many GMs choose to stick with their bad moves for far longer than is justified.