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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Placing Kevin Garnett's Career in Proper Context is Complicated

Kevin Garnett recently announced his retirement, ending a 21 season career that was highlighted by one NBA championship (Boston, 2008), one regular season MVP award (2004), one Defensive Player of the Year award (2008), four rebounding titles (2004-07) and nine All-Defensive First Team selections. Garnett will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, albeit one who will be overshadowed by two other first ballot Hall of Famers in his class (Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan).

Garnett's impact extended beyond the court, because he directly or indirectly influenced changes in how the business of basketball operates. He entered the NBA in 1995 as a 19 year old known as "The Kid" and "The Big Ticket." He was the first basketball player to make the preps to pros jump since Darryl Dawkins in 1975 and the first to become an All-Star after doing so since Moses Malone, who jumped from high school straight to the ABA in 1974 and eventually became a three-time NBA MVP. In contrast, Dawkins enjoyed a 14 year NBA career but he never made the All-Star team.

Garnett's successful NBA debut paved the way for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and several other future Hall of Famers to jump straight to the NBA from high school--but the failures of many other high school players who attempted the same feat (and shall remain nameless here) ultimately led to the NBA instituting a rule preventing teams from drafting or signing players who had just finished high school. After Garnett emerged as an All-Star in 1998, he signed a then-mind boggling six year, $126 million contract extension that precipitated the 1999 lockout as owners scrambled to change the rules regarding rookie contracts and maximum contract size. Garnett's huge deal was grandfathered in, though, and is a major reason that Garnett has the highest career earnings of any player in NBA history.

Despite Garnett's fat bank account, no credible analyst would propose that he is one of the top 10 players of all-time or even one of the top 20 players of all-time; even his staunchest supporters would hesitate to rank him higher than somewhere between 21-30 among the best of the best.

However, the "stat gurus" always loved Garnett and one of the major themes repeated by many of the "stat gurus" when "advanced basketball statistics" were first gaining attention was that Garnett's value was not fully appreciated by old school talent evaluators but was only captured by proper numbers crunching. I found the whole spectacle ridiculous for a variety of reasons: (1) Garnett achieved fame, wealth and awards long before most people had any idea that "advanced basketball statistics" existed, so he was hardly underrated or ignored by conventional player evaluation methods; (2) many of the statistical systems that supposedly proved Garnett's efficiency had serious flaws; (3) the underlying premise that Garnett was the best player in the league ("stat guru" Dave Berri tapped Garnett for that honor not once, not twice but four years in a row!) is demonstrably false. In fact, the insistence by so many "stat gurus" that Garnett was underrated when he clearly was not underrated was one of the first warning signs to me that many "stat gurus" were not pursuing truth but rather creating story lines that would justify them being hired by ESPN or by NBA front offices (and this plan worked out very well for the "stat gurus," even if it made ESPN's NBA coverage--in both TV and print formats--unbearable at times and even if it made teams like the Philadelphia 76ers deplorable and unwatchable).

Addressing the first point, no one needed to crunch numbers on a fancy spreadsheet to figure out that Garnett was a very good player; the eye test showed that he was a mobile seven footer who scored, rebounded, passed, blocked shots and accumulated steals. He set solid (and, arguably, illegal) screens, he could guard multiple positions and he was durable. Those reasons explain why Garnett was able to go straight from high school to the NBA and quickly become the highest paid player ever while receiving All-Star selections and other honors. It is absurd to suggest that no one understood Garnett's worth until Dave Berri and other "stat gurus" showed up.

Regarding the second point, I have always insisted that if we are going to buy the premise that a given player is the best in the league because statistical system "X" says so then we also have to buy the premise that the other conclusions of statistical system "X" are valid, because the same methodology informs those conclusions. For example, let's take Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). According to that metric, in the past 20 years LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA eight times. Maybe you buy that premise, maybe you don't, but let's dig deeper. The other multiple leaders since 1996-97 are Kevin Garnett (three times) and Stephen Curry (twice). VORP tapped Shaquille O'Neal as the best player once and it never placed Kobe Bryant higher than third (VORP only placed Bryant in the top five in the NBA three times during his entire career). Tim Duncan also was only listed as the best player once. Maybe you are still on board with VORP, so try this on for size: VORP ranked Steve Francis as the best player in the NBA in 2000-01. If you still take VORP seriously, I don't think that I can help you understand basketball (or anything else). According to VORP, Tim Duncan was the best player in the NBA in 2001-02 and Kevin Garnett was the second best player. I disagree with that but maybe you don't think those particular rankings are outlandish, so please note that  in 2001-02 VORP ranked Brent Barry as the fourth best player in the NBA (O'Neal was eighth and Bryant 12th as they somehow defied "advanced basketball statistics" to lead the L.A. Lakers to a third straight championship).

So, if you are using VORP (or Berri's statistical gibberish, which produced similarly bizarre results) to support the idea that Garnett should have won three MVPs, then you are also co-signing on Francis winning one MVP and Brent Barry being an All-NBA First Team caliber player in 2001-02. This kind of nonsense explains why I spent so much time decrying "stat gurus" and "advanced basketball statistics" during the early years of 20 Second Timeout (with age I have come to realize that it is difficult to turn fools away from foolishness, particularly if the fools can make money by propounding said foolishness).

As for the third point, I don't believe that Garnett was ever the best player in the NBA; Berri and VORP are way off base by suggesting that he should have won multiple MVPs and even the official MVP voters lost the thread a bit in 2004 when they were so excited about the possibility of Garnett finally winning a playoff series that they gave him the MVP. The best thing that Garnett did in the 2003-04 season is stay healthy; he played in all 82 games, while Bryant, Duncan and O'Neal each missed at least 13 games. If the MVP voters used durability as the tiebreaker when choosing Garnett I can accept that but I am not buying that Garnett deserved the MVP because VORP and Berri said so.

Garnett was certainly a viable MVP candidate in 2004 but Duncan--already a two-time NBA champion--essentially posted the same numbers in 2004 that he did in 2003 when he won the second of his back to back MVPs. The San Antonio Spurs went 51-18 when Duncan played but just 6-7 in the games that he missed, which kind of suggests that Duncan was rather valuable. Similarly, the Lakers went 48-17 with Bryant and just 8-9 without him. The Lakers posted a 15-4 record when Bryant scored at least 30 points.

Garnett paid a lot of attention to his individual numbers, particularly during the first half of his career. During his prime, Garnett bragged that he produced "20-10-5" (averages of at least 20 ppg, 10 rpg and 5 apg) on a yearly basis. While that was true from 2000-2005, it is also true that his Minnesota Timberwolves went 5-13 in the playoffs during the first four of those seasons, never making it out of the first round. After adding two-time NBA champion Sam Cassell and 1999 NBA Finalist Latrell Sprewell to the roster, Minnesota advanced to the 2004 Western Conference Finals before losing in six games to the Lakers, who somehow overcame the non-MVP caliber VORP numbers of Bryant and O'Neal. Garnett's Timberwolves then missed the playoffs each of the next three seasons.

After the first of Garnett's six straight 20-10-5 seasons, Minnesota lost 3-1 to Portland in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. Scottie Pippen, in the twilight of his career at 34 years old, averaged 18.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.3 apg for Portland in the series. He shot just .419 from the field but he shot .421 from three point range and nearly a third of his field goal attempts were from beyond the arc, so his shooting was actually rather efficient overall. Pippen led Portland in scoring and rebounding during the series, while ranking second in assists. Garnett averaged 18.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 8.8 apg but he shot just .385 from the field, without the benefit of a lot of made three pointers to offset all of his errant attempts. He led Minnesota in rebounding and assists while ranking second in scoring to Terrell Brandon, who averaged 19.5 ppg on .508 field goal shooting.

A few years later, Pippen--never one to mince words--made some pointed comments about Garnett: "He really set the tone for self-destruction. He's very productive but unproductive. He gets you all the stats you want, but at the end of the day his points don't have an impact on [winning] the game. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but in the last five minutes of the game he ain't the same player as in the first five." Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley had both previously criticized Garnett for not having a go-to scoring move in the post and for not carrying enough of the scoring burden down the stretch in close games.

Here is my June 2007 take on Garnett just before he was traded to Boston:
Garnett has put up gaudy numbers during his career--20.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 4.5 apg--but it could be argued that he has less impact on winning and losing then perhaps any other player who has ever won an MVP. Go through the list of MVP winners and try to find another one whose teams missed the playoffs for three straight years while he was healthy and in his prime. Garnett once boasted in a TV ad about how he puts up "20, 10 and 5" (referring to ppg, rpg and apg) year in and year out but one wonders if achieving those stats means more to him than putting up 50 (regular season wins) and 16 (the number of playoff wins it takes to win a championship). Tim Duncan seems utterly unconcerned with attaining certain specific individual statistical totals; he does whatever his team needs him to do to win on a given night.
The arrival of Julius Erving in Philadelphia turned the 76ers into instant, perennial championship contenders and he stuck it out with the franchise until they finally won a title. Isiah Thomas joined a 16 win Detroit team and transformed them into back to back champions a few years later during an era when the NBA was dominated by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Jordan joined a bad Chicago team and eventually led the Bulls to the top of the heap. Garnett strung together a bunch of first round losses, made it to the Conference Finals once and then wanted to flee Minnesota after missing the playoffs for three years in a row.

The trade to Boston was perfect for Garnett, for it teamed him up with two future Hall of Famers (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) who were more than happy to do the clutch scoring down the stretch of close games. The Celtics also had a deep roster surrounding their All-Star trio, including a young point guard in Rajon Rondo who was the best player on the court at crucial times during the 2008 championship run.

The Celtics rolled to a 66-16 regular season record in 2007-08 and Garnett finished third in the regular season MVP voting. I would argue that this was perhaps the best season of his career even though he did not come close to 20-10-5, because Garnett was entirely focused on winning a championship, as opposed to putting up gaudy individual numbers to convince critics that it was not his fault that his team was losing. It is worth remembering, though, that Pierce--not Garnett--won the Finals MVP as the Celtics defeated Bryant's Lakers in six games.

Boston made it back to the Finals in 2009 but Bryant won the Finals MVP as his Lakers triumphed in seven games. Garnett battled injuries and declining skills during the rest of his career, making stops in Brooklyn and then Minnesota again before finally deciding to retire.

Duncan was without question the best power forward of this (or any) era. He averaged 19.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.0 apg and 2.2 bpg during his regular season career, increasing those numbers to 20.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 3.0 apg and 2.3 bpg during the playoffs. Garnett averaged 17.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.7 apg and 1.4 bpg during the regular season and 18.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.3 apg and 1.3 bpg during the playoffs. The numbers look comparable, though Duncan enjoys at least a slight edge across the board except for assists. However, Duncan had a much greater impact; he anchored the Spurs in the paint at both ends of the court, while Garnett far too often drifted away from the paint. Garnett had much more jumping ability than Duncan, yet Duncan blocked more shots. It is not a coincidence that Duncan won five championships and contended for titles throughout his career while Garnett won one championship and went through long stretches during which he did not contend for titles.

Garnett made the All-NBA First Team four times. Bryant and Karl Malone hold the record with 11 All-NBA First Team selections each. Duncan made the All-NBA First Team 10 times, matching Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Players with nine All-NBA First Team selections include Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (Julius Erving made the All-ABA First Team four times and the All-NBA First Team five times for a total of nine First Team selections).

Garnett's nine All-Defensive First Team selections are tied for first all-time with Jordan, Bryant and Gary Payton. Garnett's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2008 was well deserved, as his work at that end of the court played a major role in turning Boston into a dominant defensive team.

Much is made about Garnett's trash talking and toughness but I was never much impressed by either quality with Garnett. While I prefer athletes with a quiet demeanor like Erving, Duncan and Bjorn Borg, I have also rooted for and appreciated flamboyant performers such as Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson and Deion Sanders; I don't mind if you talk and strut if you back up the words and swagger by winning championships. Garnett spent more than 20 years running his mouth and he has exactly one championship to show for all of that noise--and he was not the best player on the court during that championship series. Ali, Jackson and Sanders were at their best when they faced the best. Regarding toughness, I don't remember Garnett confronting Charles Oakley or other real tough guys; when I picture Garnett yapping I picture him screaming at guys half his size and/or half his ability. OK, he tapped Duncan on the head once--and Duncan looked at Garnett like Garnett was crazy. Garnett did not intimidate Duncan and Garnett seemed far from enthusiastic about tapping anyone on the head who might have remotely considered responding in kind.

In his prime, Garnett was a first rate rebounder and defender. He scored and passed well, though not well enough to carry a team very far without substantial help. Garnett was a great player but he was never the NBA's best player. I think that the criticisms that Pippen, Magic and Barkley made about Garnett during Garnett's Minnesota days were valid and I don't think that the Boston championship refuted those criticisms; that championship proved that Garnett was willing and able to reduce his role to fit in on a title team (and he deserves credit for doing that) but it did not prove that Garnett was at the same level as his contemporaries O'Neal, Duncan, Bryant and James, players who performed at an individually dominant level during multiple championship runs.

Perhaps this article may come across as more negative than it is intended to be but I am simply trying to place Garnett's career in proper context, which is not easy to do after years of media rhapsodizing and reams of "analysis" that supposedly proved that Garnett was perennially the NBA's best player when O'Neal, Duncan and Bryant were all in the primes of their careers. It is not necessarily Garnett's fault that his value was overstated at times but as an analyst/commentator I feel duty bound to correct the record as the books close on a great--but not Pantheon level--career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:25 AM


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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Justin Termine's All-1970s and All-1980s Teams

Justine Termine's website declares that he is "an entertainer, not a journalist," which is an admission that his player rankings are designed more to promote conversation/controversy than to actually evaluate greatness. Nevertheless, the All-Decade Teams that he announced on Sirius NBA radio last year* at least provide a foundation to discuss the subject of how one might best select an All-Decade team.

Termine chose Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his All-1970s Team. Termine's All-1980s Team includes Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It is important to establish two ground rules when selecting an All-Decade Team: (1) The minimum number of games played to qualify and (2) Determining what position a player played.

Generally, in order to qualify to be listed among career regular season statistical leaders in the NBA record book, a player must have competed in at least 400 games. Essentially, that constitutes a five year career. Since most great NBA careers begin in one decade and conclude in another, the 400 game standard is a bit too high for inclusion on an All-Decade Team, so I propose that the minimum number of games be 320. A player can significantly impact a decade by participating in at least four seasons.

Positional designations can be tricky. The modern NBA is almost position-less, comprising "bigs" who mainly play in the paint (a dying breed) and "smalls" (who often are 6-9 or taller) who play all over the court. In the 1970s and 1980s, though, positional designations were more meaningful and most teams had a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a power forward and a center. The point guard handled the ball and ran the offense, the shooting guard was generally a scorer who had some ballhandling responsibilities, the small forward mainly played on the wing (though he could also contribute on the boards and perhaps occasionally post up on offense), the power forward rebounded and defended the hoop (and sometimes was a prime scoring option as well) and the center typically played with his back to the basket at both ends of the court. Obviously, these descriptions do not apply to all players from those eras, but an examination of the All-NBA Teams selected during those decades demonstrates that those squads almost always consisted of two guards, two forwards and one center. Sometimes, two small forwards were chosen instead of a small forward and a power forward but at the very least the broad designations of guard/forward/center were followed pretty consistently.

An All-Decade Team should comprise two guards, two forwards and one center who each played at least 320 regular season games during that decade. How should the players be selected/ranked? The answer to that question is inherently subjective to some extent; even people who claim to be using purely "objective" statistical tools are actually being subjective, because the statistical tools they choose reflect their subjective preferences/biases. I do not have a set formula but I place high importance (in no particular order) on (1) peak value, (2) versatility, (3) lack of a defined skill set weakness, (4) longevity/durability and (5) winning. Regarding the last factor, I do not "punish" a player for not winning if he never had a supporting cast that would have enabled him to win but I do "reward" players who win because, after all, that is why we keep score in the first place. Even when these factors are not explicitly mentioned below, they formed the basis for my selections.

Each member of Termine's All-1970s Team far exceeded the 320 games guideline suggested above but the designation of Havlicek as a guard is questionable at best. While it is true that Havlicek often played shooting guard (particularly early in his career) and he is renowned for his ability to swing between the frontcout and the backcourt, Havlicek made the All-NBA First or Second Team seven times during the 1970s and on each occasion he was listed as a forward. Havlicek ranked second in the decade in total assists (4185) but that does not justify listing him as a guard; Barry was right behind Havlicek in third place with 4093 assists and there is no question that Barry was a forward.

Termine's other selection at guard is right on target. Frazier averaged 20.2 ppg (26th in the 1970s), 6.1 apg (fifth in the 1970s) and 6.0 rpg (first in the 1970s among point guards) during the 1970s. He was the premier defensive guard of that era and a key member of two championship teams. A strong case could be made that Frazier was the best all-around guard of the 1970s.

Other top guards of the 1970s include Jerry West, Pete Maravich, George Gervin, Nate "Tiny" Archibald and Gail Goodrich. West played 320 games in the 1970s, so he just meets my games played requirement. He won one championship and participated in three NBA Finals during the 1970s. West ranks fourth in the decade in scoring average (26.1 ppg) and first in assists (8.7 apg) by nearly a full assist per game over Lenny Wilkens (7.9 apg). West made the All-Defensive First Team each year from 1970-73.

Maravich played 615 games in the 1970s, ranking sixth in scoring average (25.0 ppg), seventh in total points (15,359) and eighth in apg (5.7). Maravich made the All-NBA First Team in 1976 and 1977, when he won the scoring title (31.1 ppg) and finished third in the MVP voting. He was leading the league in scoring in 1978 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury--and he still made the All-NBA Second Team despite appearing in only 50 games. Two drawbacks for Maravich are that he was not a great defender and his teams had minimal playoff success (which is not necessarily his fault, but has to be weighed at least a little bit when comparing him to Frazier and West).

Gervin was a scoring machine in both the ABA and NBA, averaging 24.1 ppg overall (eighth in the 1970s) during the decade and winning two NBA scoring titles (1978, 1979). Gervin began his career as a forward but spent most of the 1970s playing shooting guard. Gervin finished second behind Bill Walton in the 1978 NBA MVP voting and he finished second behind Moses Malone in the 1979 NBA MVP voting.

Archibald remains the only player in NBA/ABA history to win a scoring title and an assists title in the same season, averaging 34.0 ppg and 11.4 apg in 1972-73. He averaged 23.0 ppg (12th in the 1970s) and 7.6 apg (third in the 1970s) during the decade. Archibald only made the playoffs once in the 1970s before winning a championship with Boston in 1981.

Goodrich ranked 10th in both total points (14,692) and total assists (3769) during the 1970s, while finishing 27th in ppg (20.2) and 13th in apg (5.2). He was the leading scorer in the regular season (career-high 25.9 ppg) and playoffs (23.8 ppg) for the 1972 Lakers team that posted a then-record 69 wins en route to capturing the NBA title.

My All-1970s Team includes West at guard alongside Frazier. West led the decade's guards in scoring and assists and he was right behind Frazier as a defender even though West was at the tail end of his career while Frazier was in his prime. West performed at a high level at both ends of the court for teams that perennially contended for championships, so I give him the edge over Maravich even though Maravich put up gaudy numbers in nearly twice as many games. Frazier and West were the two best guards in the early 1970s, Maravich was the best guard in the mid-1970s and Gervin was the best guard in the late 1970s.

Termine's most glaring omission is not including Julius Erving at forward. Erving was clearly the best forward of the 1970s and a strong case could be made that he was the best player, period (the only other serious contender for that honor is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Erving ranked third in the decade in scoring average (26.2), 19th in rebounding average (10.4, second only to Billy Cunningham's 11.4 among small forwards), tied for 22nd-24th in apg (4.5, fourth among small forwards behind John Havlicek, Rick Barry and Billy Cunningham), tied for third-seventh in steals per game (2.1, tied with Rick Barry for best among small forwards) and ninth in blocked shots per game (1.7; steals and blocked shots became official statistics in 1972-73 in the ABA and in 1973-74 in the NBA). Erving won three ABA scoring titles, three ABA regular season MVPs (sharing one with George McGinnis), two ABA Playoff MVPs and two ABA titles. He also led the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals in the first season after the NBA-ABA merger.

The forward position was stacked during the 1970s (and the 1980s). A compelling case could be made for many players to join Erving on the All-1970s Team but when you look at versatility, durability and impact three forwards separate themselves from the pack: Rick Barry, John Havlicek and Elvin Hayes.

Barry played like Superman in 1974-75 when he led the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship, the first and only title of Barry's career. He ranked third in the 1970s in total points (18,389) and assists (4093). He was seventh in scoring average (24.4 ppg) and tied for 10th-11th in apg (5.4, second only to Havlicek among forwards). Barry won five of his seven free throw percentage titles during the 1970s and he was the decade's leader in that department (.899). He was a solid rebounder (6.3 rpg in the 1970s, ranking 45th). Barry covered the passing lanes very well (like Erving, he averaged 2.1 spg during the 1970s) but he rarely blocked shots and overall he was an average defender at best.

I already mentioned Havlicek's status as a perennial All-NBA Team forward and his prowess as a passer. He also was a fixture on the All-Defensive Team (First Team member 1972-76, Second Team member in 1970 and 1971). Havlicek ranked sixth in total points (15,747) and 18th in scoring average (21.9 ppg) during the 1970s. Like Barry, he was a solid rebounder (6.4 rpg in the 1970s, ranking 44th). In the 1960s he was a great sixth man on the storied Boston championship teams led by Bill Russell but in the 1970s Havlicek took on a leading role as Boston won titles in 1974 and 1976. Havlicek earned the 1974 Finals MVP.

Hayes was a great college center at the University of Houston who had a tremendous rivalry with Abdul-Jabbar (who was known as Lew Alcindor when he played for UCLA). Hayes played center early in his NBA career but he spent most of the 1970s playing power forward for the Bullets alongside Hall of Fame center Wes Unseld. Hayes led the 1970s in total rebounds (11,565) and he ranked second in total points (18,922). Hayes averaged 23.2 ppg in the 1970s (11th) and his 14.2 rpg average ranked sixth. He was also an exceptional shot blocker (2.5 bpg, third in the 1970s). Hayes helped the Bullets reach the NBA Finals three times (1975, 1978, 1979) and he was a key contributor to their 1978 championship team. He did not have a great relationship with the media, which probably contributed to him getting stuck with a reputation as a malcontent who did not perform well in clutch situations, but Hayes was a dominant scorer-rebounder-shot blocker throughout the decade.

Hayes was the best power forward of the decade and Havlicek may well have been the best two-way forward but Barry had an extra gear as a dominant scorer, enabling him to win a championship with less help than either Havlicek or Hayes had. I cannot fault anyone for taking Havlicek or Hayes but Barry gets my nod as the other All-1970s Team forward alongside the spectacular Erving.

I agree with Termine's choice of Abdul-Jabbar at center but it is still worth looking at Abdul-Jabbar's resume, as he may be the most underrated great basketball player of all-time. He led the 1970s in total points (22,141, more than 3000 ahead of Hayes), ppg (28.6, 1.2 ppg ahead of Bob McAdoo) and bpg (3.5) while ranking second in total rebounds (11,460) and rpg (14.8). Abdul-Jabbar shot .551 from the field in the 1970s, third behind Bobby Jones and Artis Gilmore, two players who attempted significantly fewer shots per game than he did. Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA Finals twice (1971, 1974), earning the Finals MVP after a 4-0 sweep of the Bullets in 1971. He won five of his record six regular season MVPs in the 1970s. The only other player who won multiple MVPs in the 1970s is Erving, who picked up three straight (1974-76) in the ABA.

Other top centers during the 1970s include Bob McAdoo, Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Dave Cowens. Moses Malone came on strong at the end of the decade, winning the first of his three regular season MVPs in 1979, but he did not accumulate a significant enough body of work in the 1970s to measure up with Abdul-Jabbar; similarly, Bill Walton played the position about as well as anyone has for a season and a half spanning 1976-78--leading Portland to the 1977 NBA title, winning the 1977 Finals MVP and then earning the 1978 regular season MVP--but he did not sustain his greatness nearly long enough to supplant Abdul-Jabbar from the number one spot on the All-1970s Team.

McAdoo spent a lot of time at forward--particularly later in his career--but in the 1970s he made his mark at center, earning a pair of All-NBA selections at that position in 1974 and 1975. McAdoo also won the 1975 regular season MVP. During the 1970s he ranked second in ppg (27.4), he tied for sixth-seventh in bpg (2.0) and he tied for eighth-tenth in rpg (12.2). McAdoo also ranked 11th in field goal percentage (.509) even though he shot a lot of long range jumpers. When Bill Russell was asked how McAdoo ranked among big men as a shooter, Russell responded that McAdoo was one of the great shooters of all-time regardless of size or position.

Gilmore was one of the few centers who had enough size and strength to cause problems for Abdul-Jabbar. These two titans had some great battles in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the NBA-ABA merger. Gilmore ranked ninth in total points (14,708) and fourth in total rebounds (10,353) in the 1970s. He won the 1975 ABA Playoff MVP after leading the Kentucky Colonels to their first and only championship. Gilmore had the 16th highest scoring average in the 1970s (22.1 ppg), the best rebounding average (15.5 rpg) and the second best blocked shots per game average (3.0 bpg).

Daniels was the man in the middle for the Indiana Pacers as they won three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73). He is the ABA's all-time leading rebounder and he earned one of his two regular season MVPs during the 1970s (1971). Daniels was not a huge scorer (17.0 ppg, 58th in the 1970s) but he tied for third-fourth in rebounding (14.6 rpg) and 10th-11th in blocked shots (1.5 bpg).

Cowens ranked fifth in total rebounds (9636) in the 1970s and he tied Daniels for third-fourth with a 14.6 rpg average. He tied for 35th-36th in the 1970s with an 18.6 ppg average. The undersized Cowens did not block many shots for a center (1.0 bpg) but he was a feisty defensive player who earned three All-Defensive Team selections. Cowens won the 1973 NBA regular season MVP and he finished fourth, second and third respectively in the 1974, 1975 and 1976 MVP voting. Cowens played a major role for Boston's 1974 and 1976 championship teams.

McAdoo, Gilmore, Daniels and Cowens are each Hall of Famers who hit their primes in the 1970s but none of them accomplished enough to warrant being ranked ahead of Abdul-Jabbar.

Thus, my All-1970s Team is Walt Frazier, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Termine did a better job with his All-1980s Team than he did with his All-1970s Team but at least three of the five picks are absolute no-brainers: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have to be the guards and Larry Bird has to be one of the forwards. Abdul-Jabbar is the best choice at center, though he had some competition from Moses Malone early in the decade and Hakeem Olajuwon as the decade closed. However, Termine's pro-Celtic (and perhaps anti-Julius Erving) bias shows a bit with his selection of Kevin McHale as the other forward. While McHale was a great player, he was not a better or more dominant performer in the 1980s than Erving.

Magic Johnson was the player of the decade. In the 1980s he won two of his three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989), he won three Finals MVPs (1980 as a rookie, 1982, 1987) and he led the Lakers to five championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988) in eight Finals appearances. Johnson's Lakers defeated Bird's Celtics in two of their three Finals matchups, Johnson won two more championships than Bird and Johnson led the Lakers to the first back to back titles since Russell's Celtics accomplished the feat in 1968-69.

Johnson ranked first in apg by a country mile (11.2, 1.4 apg more than Isiah Thomas) during the 1980s and he led the league in that category four times. Johnson was not a great one on one defender but he used his size to good effect on the defensive boards and he played the passing lanes very well, ranking eighth in spg (2.0) during the 1980s while leading the league in that department twice. Although not known as a huge scorer for most of his career, he still ranked 26th in scoring average (19.2 ppg). Johnson was an exceptional rebounder for a guard, averaging 7.4 rpg in the 1980s to rank 28th, right behind Abdul-Jabbar and McHale. He was not a great outside shooter but he improved in that area as his career progressed and he also became an excellent free throw shooter (.834, 17th best in the 1980s) who won the free throw shooting crown in 1989. His basketball IQ was off the charts and don't let the megawatt smile fool you: he was a killer on the court.

Jordan took the league by storm with his individual talents but in each of his first three seasons the Chicago Bulls were a sub-.500 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. He won one of his five regular season MVPs in the 1980s (1988) and he won the Defensive Player of the Year award the same year, the first player to accomplish that feat (Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1994, while David Robinson eventually won both awards but not in the same season). Jordan won three of his record 10 scoring titles in the 1980s and his 37.1 ppg average in 1986-87 is the record for players not named Wilt Chamberlain (Chamberlain exceeded that mark four times). Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg in the 1980s, 6.1 ppg more than second place finisher Adrian Dantley. Though Jordan was criticized for supposedly being selfish in his early years, he averaged 5.9 apg in the 1980s (12th best and just .2 apg behind Bird, who was lauded for his passing skills). Jordan ranked ninth in free throw shooting percentage (.848). Other than three point shooting, Jordan had no skill set weaknesses.

Bird won three straight regular season MVPs (1984-86), a feat only accomplished by Russell (1961-63), Chamberlain (1966-68) and Erving (1974-76 in the ABA). He led the Celtics to three championships (1981, 1984, 1986), winning two Finals MVPs (1984, 1986). As mentioned above, he was renowned for his passing skills--but he was also a top notch scorer, ranking sixth in the decade with a 25.0 ppg average topped only by scoring champions Jordan, Dantley, Gervin and Alex English. Bird was described as a pass-first player but he attempted 19.6 field goals per game during the 1980s, the fifth highest average behind only Jordan, Wilkins, English and Gervin. Bird ranked ninth in rpg (10.2) and tied for 13th-14th in steals (1.8 spg). Bird was a notoriously poor one on one defender who was routinely assigned to guard the weakest offensive threat on the opposing team's frontcourt but he inexplicably received a pair of All-Defensive Second Team selections early in his career. Bird was the best free throw shooter in the 1980s (.880).

Bird's teammate McHale was a great low post scorer who twice led the NBA in field goal percentage and who could guard all three frontcourt positions during his prime but he only made the All-NBA Team once (1987, when he finished fourth in MVP voting--the only time he placed in the top 12). He never averaged 10 rpg during a season, as Bird and Robert Parish annually ranked 1-2 on the team in that category. I am not bashing McHale at all, just stating the facts: he was a great player but even when one limits the comparison to 1980s statistics and accomplishments he must be ranked behind Erving.

It is unfortunate that even many so-called basketball historians have forgotten that the sport's marquee matchup for the first four years of the 1980s was the Erving-Bird rivalry. Erving and Bird made the All-NBA First Team each season from 1980-83 (in 1984, the 34 year old Erving slipped to Second Team status while Bird remained on the First Team). Erving and Bird faced each other in three Eastern Conference Finals during that period, with Erving's 76ers winning in 1980 and 1982, while Bird's Celtics overcame a 3-1 deficit to triumph in 1981 (a past his prime Erving lost to Bird 4-1 in the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals). Erving's "prize" for twice besting Bird was to face the L.A. Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the NBA Finals, while Bird won an NBA title against a sub-.500 Houston team in 1981. Moses Malone joined forces with Erving in 1982-83 and that tandem proved unstoppable, rolling to a 65-17 regular season record before going 12-1 in the playoffs, capping things off in style by sweeping the Lakers 4-0. Only the 2001 L.A. Lakers posted a better playoff record (15-1 in an expanded format) than the 1983 76ers.

Erving was not quite the same player in the 1980s as he had been in the 1970s but in 1981 at the age of 31 he won the regular season MVP, becoming the first non-center to win the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1964. Erving was the forerunner of a host of non-centers who subsequently won the award. The only 1980s forward who topped Erving's four All-NBA First Team selections is Bird (nine); the next players on the list are Bernard King and Charles Barkley (two each). Erving spent some time at guard in his final two seasons--when he was still an All-Star but no longer an elite player--but he still ranked 15th in the 1980s in scoring (22.0 ppg), 38th in rebounding (6.4 rpg, better than the similarly sized and much younger Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and James Worthy), 28th in assists (3.8 apg, fifth best among small forwards), 13th-14th in steals (1.8 spg) and 10th in blocked shots (1.6 bpg, the best mark among small forwards). From 1980-84 at the ages of 30-34, Erving finished second, first, third, fifth and sixth in the regular season MVP voting. It is also worth noting that he captured All-Star MVP honors in 1983 and he finished second in the Slam Dunk Contest in 1984, demonstrating that he could match (and exceed) the aerial acrobatics of players significantly younger than he was. The All-Star Game MVP and the Slam Dunk Contest do not factor into All-Decade Team consideration but the point is that well into his 30s Erving was perceived as and performed like an elite player who was still a torch bearer for the league even with the emergence of Bird and Magic.

The 1980s was perhaps the NBA's golden age of small forwards, as Dantley (26.5 ppg, third in the 1980s), Wilkins (26.0 ppg, fourth in the 1980s) and English (25.9 ppg, fifth in the 1980s) each outscored Bird and Erving. King (22.6 ppg, 12th in the 1980s) gave Bird a run for his money for 1984 regular season MVP honors and then clinched the 1985 scoring title with an eye-popping 32.9 ppg average before a devastating knee injury almost ended his career. Other high scoring 1980s small forwards include Mark Aguirre (24.1 ppg, eighth in the 1980s) and Kiki Vandeweghe (22.8 ppg, eighth in the 1980s). However, none of those forwards won championships except for Aguirre and none of those forwards could impact a game in as many ways or as profoundly as Erving and Bird.

Two other forwards worth mentioning are Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, who began their ascents toward stardom in the 1980s but did not emerge as MVPs until the 1990s. 

Like Erving, Abdul-Jabbar was not as dominant in the 1980s as he was in the 1970s--and, like Erving, Abdul-Jabbar did more in the 1980s alone than most players do in their entire careers. Abdul-Jabbar was already 33 years old by the conclusion of the 1980 regular season but the arrival of rookie Magic Johnson seemed to lift his spirits. Abdul-Jabbar won five championships with Johnson and it is not like he was riding Johnson's coattails; Abdul-Jabbar won the 1980 regular season MVP (and probably would have won the 1980 Finals MVP if a sprained ankle had not forced him out of game six, setting the stage for Johnson's legendary 42 point, 15 rebound, seven assist performance) and at 38 years old he captured the 1985 Finals MVP. He made the All-NBA First Team four times during the 1980s, more than any other center (Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon each earned three First Team selections during the decade). He ranked 18th in scoring (20.6 ppg), 26th in rebounding (7.6 rpg) and third in blocked shots per game (2.6). Abdul-Jabbar was the focal point of the Lakers' offense until 1986-87 and even though he was no longer a dominant rebounder he was still a formidable rim protector.

Abdul-Jabbar's only serious challengers for pivot supremacy in the 1980s were Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon. Malone won a pair of regular season MVPs (1982, 1983) and he outplayed Abdul-Jabbar in the 1983 Finals. In the 1980s, Malone ranked seventh in scoring (24.5 ppg), first in rebounding (13.2 rpg) and 12th in blocked shots per game (1.4). His individual numbers were better than Abdul-Jabbar's and for a two year stretch (1982-83) he outplayed Abdul-Jabbar but Malone did not sustain that level, enabling Abdul-Jabbar to regain All-NBA First Team status. As first Malone and then Abdul-Jabbar faded, Olajuwon stepped to the forefront. In the 1980s Olajuwon relied more on pure athleticism than the nimble footwork which he perfected in the 1990s but even in his raw, early days he was a force to be reckoned with, ranking 10th in scoring (23.0 ppg), second in rebounding (12.1 rpg) and first in blocked shots (3.1 bpg) during the 1980s. Olajuwon was without question the best center in the NBA during the final three years of the 1980s. He actually finished fourth in the 1986 MVP voting, one spot ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, who was selected over Olajuwon as the All-NBA First Team center. Olajuwon captured All-NBA First Team honors in 1987-89, ranking seventh, seventh and fifth in the regular season MVP voting during those seasons. In the 1980s, Malone was more physical and relentless than Abdul-Jabbar, while Olajuwon was more athletic, but no center had a longer run at the top--both individually and from a team standpoint--than Abdul-Jabbar.

Thus, my All-1980s Team is Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


* One could argue that this is old news since Termine selected his All-Decade teams last year but this is the first opportunity that I have had to respond in depth and since the subject matter is historical the timeliness of the response does not matter; it is more important to address this subject thoroughly than it is to immediately fire something off in response.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 PM


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Thursday, September 15, 2016

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

I have previously noted that Julius Erving has served as a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter nine times, which is very possibly a record (I have yet to find a complete and official list of presenters but based on the available data I do not know of anyone who has been a presenter more often than Erving). Erving retired before most of today's NBA players were even born. The first five years of Erving's career took place in the relative obscurity of the ABA and most of his career happened before ESPN became massively popular. Yet, Erving's legend endures. Why is that?

John Roach of The Times-Picayune offers his take in a thoughtful and personal piece:

Why Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson wanted Dr. J as a presenter

Roach lists some of Erving's numerous on-court accomplishments and feats but concludes that those things alone are not what separates Erving: "Julius Erving at heart was an Everyman who wouldn't let his extraordinary physical talents and unrelenting desire on the court define him. He was an entrepreneur, a mentor, a leader in the Philadelphia community and beyond."

When I was a kid watching Erving play and following his career, I knew that I would never feel the way about another athlete that I do about him. Erving has experienced public and private trials and tribulations during the ensuing decades but my childhood instinct has proven correct: there have been some great athletes who followed Erving and there have been some classy athletes who followed Erving but none of them have ever moved me or impacted my life the way that Erving did. Maybe part of that is because Erving was at the height of his fame during the formative years of my life but, as Roach suggests, I think that there is more to it than that. There is just something captivating, engaging and unique about Erving.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 AM


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Monday, September 12, 2016

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2016-17 is Available Now!

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2016-17 is in stores now. This season's edition includes the standard lineup of eight feature articles plus previews for each of the 30 NBA teams. The features are "Scoping the NBA" (Jorge Ribeiro and Roland Lazenby examine some of the key off-season stories), "Stopping the Unstoppable" (Michael Bradley ponders whether anyone can stop the Warriors after the addition of Kevin Durant), "It's Legacy, Dudes" (Lazenby discusses the Cavaliers' chances of winning back to back titles), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Simmons" (Lazenby provides a scouting report on the number one overall pick in the draft), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby grades each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman previews the 2017 NBA Draft), "Fantasy Basketball" (Mike Ashley provides advice to fantasy basketball aficionados) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby reminisces about how Michael Jordan took over the NBA 30 years ago, averaging a non-Wilt Chamberlain record 37.1 ppg). 

I wrote the L.A. Lakers team preview and sidebar this year. I enjoyed quickly shifting gears from Bar Exam preparation to analyzing the prospects of one of pro basketball's most storied franchises. This is the ninth edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball for which I have contributed at least one team preview or feature article, a run that started in 2005 and continued through 2013, after which I took a couple years off as I earned my J.D. degree. Respected author/editor Roland Lazenby has ably handled the editorial duties for Lindy's Pro Basketball seemingly forever; I first met Lazenby during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend in Denver after admiring his work from afar for many years and it has always been a pleasure to work with him.

When I was a kid/young adult, one of the highlights of this time of year was going to Waldenbooks and looking for the various NBA preview magazines, plus the new NBA Guide and NBA Register. The NBA Guide and NBA Register are now digital only products and many of the preview magazines of yesteryear have ceased publication but it still remains a thrill to go to a bookstore and see Lindy's Pro Basketball in the magazine section--and the thrill is heightened because I have been blessed with the opportunity to contribute to Lindy's!

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:04 PM


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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2016

This year's Basketball Hall of Fame class is headlined by two players who are polar opposites in size and playing style: the huge, powerful Shaquille O'Neal and the diminutive, quick Allen Iverson. However, it is important to not overlook the accomplishments of several of the other enshrinees, including Cumberland Posey, John McClendon and Zelmo Beaty.

Posey was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, 60 years after he passed away. He spent 35 years in that sport as a player, manager and owner. His teams won nine consecutive Negro League pennants. He was also considered to be the best African-American basketball player of the early 20th century, before he retired from basketball to pursue his baseball career. Posey played basketball at Duquesne University and was later inducted into that school's sports Hall of Fame. Posey subsequently led the Loendi Big Five to four straight Colored Basketball World Championships in the early 1920s (the term "Colored Basketball World Champion" was used and accepted by African-American sportswriters in that era and is still used today by scholars who research the segregated basketball leagues of that era).

McClendon was previously honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 as a contributor but this year he finally was enshrined as a coach, nearly 20 years after he passed away. The term innovator is thrown around far too loosely but it fits McClendon, who learned the sport of basketball from James Naismith himself. McClendon's teams pushed the pace during an era when slowing the game down was the most common and accepted way to play. McClendon is the first coach to win three straight college basketball titles, leading Tennessee State to the NAIA championship from 1957-59. McClendon also coached the Cleveland Pipers in the American Basketball League, becoming the first African-American head coach in any American professional sport and thus paving the way for championship coaches like Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens, K.C. Jones, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin and others. The movie "Black Magic" masterfully tells the story of McClendon and other African-American basketball pioneers.

Zelmo Beaty passed away three years ago, yet another great player whose belated Hall of Fame enshrinement arrived posthumously. Beaty led Prairie View A&M to the 1962 NAIA championship before earning two All-Star selections in the NBA. He then jumped to the upstart ABA, where he earned three more All-Star selections and was twice named to the All-ABA Team. Beaty won the 1971 ABA Playoff MVP award as he led the Utah Stars to the championship. He averaged 23.2 ppg and 14.6 rpg while shooting .536 from the field during the 1971 postseason. Beaty averaged 17.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg during his 12 year professional career.

O'Neal is the biggest figure in this year's class, literally and figuratively. I discussed his legacy extensively right after he retired. He should be commended for the wonderful way that he acknowledged both his history and the history of the sport by tapping Alonzo Mourning, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving and Bill Russell to be his presenters. O'Neal identified Mourning as a rival turned friend, he cited Thomas as a mentor in sport and business, he termed Russell the "greatest big man ever" and he is one of many who grew up idolizing Erving.

O'Neal is obviously one of the greatest and most dominant basketball players of all-time and I certainly don't want to rain on his parade as he receives his sport's ultimate honor but a few things are worth mentioning in light of some of O'Neal's repeated public comments about his career:

1) No one should buy the idea that the O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud was just for show or was some kind of ingenious method by O'Neal to motivate Bryant. If anyone needed motivation and focus, it was O'Neal, not Bryant. The main source of their feud was that Bryant was a relentless, obsessive worker in training, in practice and in games, while O'Neal preferred to conserve his energy for games (and sometimes only for playoff games). Yes, they had other issues as well and both could have been a little bit more mature about how they handled things but the ultimate issue was that they had a fundamentally different approach to the game--and history has vindicated Bryant's approach, because he had a much longer individual peak than O'Neal and because Bryant won more championships with less help despite not being nearly as physically imposing as O'Neal. O'Neal played with prime versions of Penny Hardaway, Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash and LeBron James, plus slightly past their prime versions of Boston's Big Three. O'Neal won three titles with Bryant and a combined one title with everyone else. I well remember that in the early 2000s many of Bryant's critics stated that any of a number of perimeter players could have won titles playing alongside O'Neal in Bryant's place; these critics likely never imagined that O'Neal would go on tour around the league playing alongside so many elite perimeter players but that happened and we found out that in terms of winning championships it is much better to play alongside Bryant than it is to play alongside the other guys. Meanwhile, my oft-stated contention during that era was that prime Bryant could contend for--if not win--a championship provided he had a solid big man and a halfway decent supporting cast. Bryant subsequently made the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and then he transformed the Lakers into a mini-dynasty when paired with Pau Gasol, who no one thought of as being even remotely close to an elite player before he arrived in L.A.

2) O'Neal has a tendency to twist history around in general, not just in terms of his relationship with Bryant. O'Neal has admitted that he made up the story about David Robinson refusing to sign an autograph for him when O'Neal was a youngster in San Antonio. O'Neal plays this off as a harmless self-motivational tactic and he claims that Robinson has forgiven him but this is different than Michael Jordan trash talking LaBradford Smith or the Vancouver Grizzlies during a game to motivate himself; O'Neal portrayed Robinson--one of the sport's class acts--in a negative light publicly because he could not figure out any other way to motivate himself to perform. Why is this deemed acceptable but Bryant's self-motivation--which was never about lying or putting down other people--is viewed so negatively?

3) O'Neal has said that when he arrived in Miami he knew that he was on the downside of his career and thus he told Dwyane Wade that the Heat were Wade's team. If O'Neal had been willing to have a similar conversation with Bryant then O'Neal could have stayed in L.A. and he almost certainly would have won multiple additional championships with Bryant as opposed to just one title with Wade.

One last point: O'Neal is often described as the most dominant player ever but that is not true either by the eye test or by the numbers. The eye test showed that a skilled and savvy big man like Hakeem Olajuwon could outduel O'Neal in the Finals during O'Neal's prime. The numbers show that when O'Neal retired he ranked 21st in regular season career scoring average (23.69 ppg) and 32nd in regular season career rebounding average (10.85 rpg). Those are great per game averages and they would have been even greater had he not extended his career well past his prime but there are just too many players ahead of O'Neal on both lists for him to be considered the most dominant player ever. O'Neal's back to back to back Finals MVP performances are among the most dominant ever but O'Neal did not sustain that kind of dominance game in, game out during his career.

All that being said, O'Neal is in my Pro Basketball Pantheon and I can say without hesitation that he was robbed by the media of several regular season MVPs that he deserved: he won the 2000 MVP (nearly becoming the first ever unanimous selection, a distinction that Stephen Curry achieved last season) while finishing second in 1995 and 2005 but he probably should have received the honor in 2001, 2002 and 2005 at the very least (the 1995 MVP rightfully should have gone neither to O'Neal nor to the actual winner David Robinson but rather to Olajuwon).

Iverson is the most amazing athlete I have ever watched perform in person. He is not necessarily the greatest athlete I have ever seen in person and he is certainly not the greatest basketball player I have seen in person but he amazes me the most because I stood next to him off of the court and I seriously doubt that he was even his listed 6-0, 165 pounds when he won four scoring titles plus one regular season MVP. If you saw him warming up from afar and did not recognize his trademark tattoos and corn rows you would have sworn that a ball boy had sneaked on to the court. Then the game began and Iverson spent 40-plus minutes (he averaged at least 40 mpg in 11 of his 14 NBA seasons, which is one of the most remarkable statistics in pro basketball history considering his size and playing style) being pushed, shoved, grabbed and bounced around like a billiard ball. Somehow, by the end of the game he would have about 27 points, six assists, two steals and a bunch of floor burns. Maybe his team won, maybe his team lost but night after night Iverson kept his team in contention and left his heart on the floor. Stat gurus will carp that he was not efficient and there is no doubt that Iverson would have benefited from taking a more disciplined approach to the sport (and life, for that matter). I did not agree with everything Iverson said or did but I would go into a (basketball) foxhole with him any day of the week. Iverson played every game as if it was his last and he gave every ounce of energy he had. Iverson played hurt and he hated to miss a minute, let alone sit out a game.

Both O'Neal and Iverson tapped Julius Erving to be one of their presenters. Erving has now served as a Hall of Fame presenter nine different times and according to my research he may hold the record for most times serving as a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter. Previously, Erving presented Cheryl Miller (1995), Moses Malone (2001), Clyde Drexler (2004), Dominique Wilkins (2006), Artis Gilmore (2011), Katrina McClain (2012), Ralph Sampson (2012). Erving has often stated that he values respect more than popularity and the fact that so many Hall of Famers from so many diverse backgrounds have selected him as a presenter is a testament to how highly respected Erving is across the board.

The other members of the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame class not discussed in this article are referee Darell Garretson, college coach Tom Izzo, Chicago Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and Chinese/NBA star Yao Ming. Their careers and accomplishments are of course noteworthy as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM


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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kevin Durant Dominates as Team USA Routs Serbia 96-66 in Gold Medal Game

Serbia kept the game competitive for a little over 10 minutes but Team USA mounted a huge second quarter run en route to a 96-66 victory to win Olympic gold for the third straight time. Team USA slipped by Serbia 94-91 in Group A play and it seemed reasonable to expect a close game again but this time Team USA reached a level that Serbia could not come close to matching, outscoring Serbia 60-28 in the second and third quarters; during those 20 minutes, Team USA played tenacious defense and featured the ball/player movement that had been largely absent earlier in the tournament. Was Team USA on cruise control for the first seven games or did Team USA build on each game to peak at just the right moment? We may never know for sure but all that matters is that Team USA came through when it mattered most and delivered the kind of emphatic victory that Team USA fans have been wanting and expecting since the Olympics began.

Kevin Durant was magnificent, scoring a game-high 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in a game-high 30 minutes and posting a +38 plus/minus number. Durant also scored 30 points in Team USA's 107-100 win over Spain in the gold medal game at the 2012 Olympics. DeMarcus Cousins came off the bench to produce 13 points and 15 rebounds in just 17 minutes. Klay Thompson was the only other Team USA player to reach double figures, scoring 12 points while also playing solid defense. Paul George's stat line is forgettable (9 points on 2-9 field goal shooting, two rebounds, two assists, three steals) but his gaudy +37 plus/minus number hints at his hidden impact; his suffocating defense played a major role in Team USA's huge second quarter run that determined the outcome of the game. Carmelo Anthony struggled in the gold medal game, which has been the case throughout his Olympic career; he finished with seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting, plus seven rebounds (one of which he grabbed late in the game after being reinserted so that he could set the USA record for career Olympic rebounds). Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting in the 2012 Olympics gold medal game and after performing poorly early in the contest he was on the bench for the final 8:13 of Team USA's 118-107 win in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain .

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the court during the aforementioned Group A matchup between Team USA and Serbia, pouring in a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting, but Team USA made a concerted effort to shut him down this time: he finished with just six points on 3-5 field goal shooting. No Serbian player stood out today; Nemanja Nedovic scored a game-high 14 points, most of which he accumulated in garbage time.

After experimenting with his starting lineup early in the Olympics, Coach Mike Krzyzewski settled on this group: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins noted that Jordan compensates for Irving's defensive shortcomings (particularly in screen/roll actions) for the first unit, while Kyle Lowry's ball pressure compensates for DeMarcus Cousins' defensive shortcomings (particularly in screen/roll actions) for the second unit. Serbia started Milan Macvan, Nikola Kalinic, Miroslav Raduljica, Stefan Markovic and Milos Teodesic, a quintet that routed Australia in the previous game, denying Australia a chance to win a medal. Serbia has a tough and well-disciplined team but they just had no answers for Team USA's depth and athleticism once Team USA decided to lock in defensively while playing unselfishly on offense. As Collins put it, a team as talented as Team USA is should never take "degree of difficulty shots" but rather should move the ball and move players until a high percentage shot is created. In the gold medal game, Team USA largely eschewed one on one play and instead probed Serbia's defense with precision passing or timely drives until Serbia just could not withstand the onslaught.

However, it was far from apparent in the early going that this would be a rout--or even that Team USA was assured a victory. Team USA turned the ball over on its first two possessions as Serbia took a 7-4 lead. Serbia was still up 14-12 at the 1:40 mark before George sank a pair of free throws. Cousins then converted a layup to make the score 16-14 in favor of Team USA. He missed the ensuing free throw for the three point play opportunity but Team USA never trailed again. Durant's three pointer with :29 remaining in the opening stanza extended the Team USA lead to 19-15, which was the score entering the second quarter.

Serbia had kept the pace slow and the score low, holding Team USA to 7-20 field goal shooting (.350) and six turnovers in the first quarter. It looked like Team USA would have to grind this one out but instead Team USA ratcheted up the defensive pressure and Serbia succumbed, perhaps satisfied to receive the silver medal. George opened the quarter with a steal and a fastbreak dunk. Cousins sank four straight free throws. Durant dropped in a pair of three pointers and then matched George with a steal/coast to coast dunk. Suddenly, Team USA was up 33-20 and smelling blood in the water. Collins noted that Coach Krzyzewski wants to force the opposition to "make plays instead of running plays." By taking Serbia out of their sets, Team USA created turnovers and bad shots that fueled their transition game. Collins also mentioned that another Coach Kryzezewski goal is for his teams to make more free throws than the opposition attempts. In this game, Team USA shot 18-23 from the free throw line while Serbia shot 10-14.

Durant scored 18 of Team USA's 33 second quarter points as Team USA took a 52-29 halftime lead and he had 24 first half points on 9-13 field goal shooting. Cousins added 11 points and 12 rebounds in the first half as Team USA's inside-outside 1-2 punch stretched Serbia's defense to the breaking point.

Team USA did not let up at all in the third quarter, outscoring Serbia 27-14 to extend the margin to 79-43. The only questions in the fourth quarter were if Team USA would break the record for point differential in an Olympic gold medal game (44) and whether every Team USA player would score at least one point. Team USA led 88-47 midway through the quarter before calling off the dogs somewhat, enabling Serbia to outscore Team USA 23-17 in the final stanza to cut the margin to an even 30 points. Harrison Barnes, who did not even see action in four of Team USA's games, received nearly six minutes of fourth quarter playing time and became the final Team USA player to score when he converted a driving layup in the last minute of play.

Team USA was rightly criticized for some shaky performances during the Olympics but at the end of the day they won every game that they played and they performed their best when the games mattered most, holding each of their final three opponents to 78 points or less and field goal percentages below .400. I am not a huge fan of Anthony's game and I am not surprised that he again came up small in the biggest games but I must say that I was moved by how overcome with emotion he was in the moments right after the game. It is obvious that representing his country is very important to Anthony and I commend him for that, particularly since so many players over the years have turned down that opportunity; Anthony has answered that call four times and the flaws in his game do not diminish the dedication that he has demonstrated in support of America and of USA Basketball. Each player on the team committed himself to sacrifice for the greater good; this may not have been a Dream Team but it was an American team that represented America well and it was a pleasure to watch them play the right way in the gold medal game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:23 PM


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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Team USA Outlasts Spain to Advance to the Gold Medal Game Versus Serbia

Team USA defeated Spain 82-76 to advance to the gold medal game on Sunday versus Serbia, who routed Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal matchup. Team USA never trailed and led by as many as 15 points but Spain stayed in contact throughout the game and had a chance to cut the lead to six with :44 remaining in the fourth quarter when Nikola Mirotic missed a layup after rebounding his own missed free throw. It is not surprising that Spain made this game competitive, because Spain proved to be a challenging foe for Team USA in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal games even when Team USA featured LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski stuck with the starting lineup that helped lead Team USA to a 105-78 quaterfinal victory over Argentina: DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Thompson has not shot well during this tournament but he scored a team-high 22 points on 8-16 field goal shooting, including 4-8 from three point range. Durant scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds but he performed erratically and Team USA was outscored by two points during his nearly 31 minutes of action. In contrast, Jordan led Team USA with a +11 plus/minus number. He scored nine points, tied the Team USA Olympic single game record with 16 rebounds and he blocked four shots. Irving's statistics do not jump off of the page (13 points, five rebounds, two assists) but he had Team USA's second best plus/minus number (+7). Anthony struggled mightily (seven points on 2-11 field goal shooting) but because he shared a lot of minutes with Thompson and Jordan he had a plus/minus number of +6.

Pau Gasol overcame a calf injury to lead Spain in scoring (23 points) and rebounds (eight). Sergio Rodriguez (11 points, team-high five assists) was Spain's only other double figure scorer as Team USA held Spain to 28-72 (.389) field goal shooting.

Durant started the game with a careless pass that led to a turnover and that play foreshadowed how the entire contest went for Team USA's leading scorer in the Rio Olympics; Durant made several questionable plays, he never found a great shooting rhythm and he also battled foul trouble. Team USA scored their first points on a Jordan putback and then Gasol countered with a putback as Spain tied the score for the first and last time. Gasol almost singlehandedly kept the game close in the first quarter, scoring nine of Spain's first 13 points and finishing the quarter with 12 points on 4-6 field goal shooting. Kyle Lowry hit a three pointer with five seconds left to push Team USA's lead to 26-17. Team USA shot 11-21 (.524) from the field and grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first quarter.

With Anthony struggling--one of his shots hit the side of the backboard--Coach Krzyzewski tapped him to shoot two technical free throws at the 9:10 mark of the second quarter but the attempt to boost Anthony's confidence backfired when Anthony missed both shots. The officiating was odd--not biased for one team, but just odd: five technical fouls were called in the first half, three on Spain and two on Team USA but the action was not chippy and the complaining that led to technical fouls did not seem excessive (at least based on the camera angles for the TV viewers). Durant received one of the technical fouls at the 3:40 mark right after he shot an airball. In FIBA play a technical foul also counts as a personal foul and five personal fouls lead to disqualification, so Durant sat out the rest of the half as he had accumulated three personal fouls. Juan Carlos Navarro made the ensuing free throw to cut Team USA's advantage to 33-30. Nikola Mirotic received a technical foul--his fourth foul of the first half--with 3:02 remaining and that was a major blow to Spain as he is a key member of their squad.

Team USA's offense was stuck in mud or quicksand during most of the second quarter. With more than eight minutes elapsed, Team USA had scored just 10 points--eight of them by Thompson. Team USA closed the quarter with nine points in the final 1:52 to hold on to a 45-39 lead. Team USA's biggest first half run was 5-0. As Doug Collins put it, the first half was disjointed" for both teams. Spain did an excellent job of slowing the game down and minimizing Team USA's transition opportunities (Team USA scored just three points off of turnovers in the first half).

Play continued to be choppy and sloppy in the third quarter. Anthony's three point play at the 6:20 mark put Team USA up 53-43 but Spain countered with a Gasol tip in and a Sergio Llull three pointer to cut the margin to five points. Jordan dunked an alley oop pass from Thompson just before the buzzer to extend Team USA's advantage to 66-57 but with 10 minutes to go it was still anyone's game.

Two layups by Kyle Lowry sandwiched around a George layup put Team USA up 72-57 with 7:28 to go but Navarro and Mirotic each hit a three pointer in an 8-3 run as Spain refused to go quietly. The score remained 75-65 for over a minute until Irving connected on a three pointer from the right wing to create some separation. A Rodriguez three pointer followed by a Mirotic dunk cut the difference to single digits again but neither team scored for over a minute and a half until Durant's layup put Team USA up 80-69 with 1:43 to go. That shot, followed by a George dunk, should have clinched the game but Victor Claver made a three pointer and then George fouled Mirotic on a three point shot. Mirotic made the first two free throws to trim the deficit to 82-74 with :44 remaining and then Mirotic snared the rebound after he missed the third free throw. Mirotic missed a point blank shot to make it a two possession game. Team USA had control at that point and a meaningless Rodriguez layup at the buzzer closed out the scoring.

Spain outscored Team USA 19-16 in the fourth quarter and Team USA's halfcourt execution throughout the game was painful to watch at times. Team USA would come out of a timeout and you could not tell what--if any--play had been called on the sideline. Spain deserves credit for being an excellent, well-coached defensive team but Team USA also bailed Spain out with careless passes, too much one on one play and some questionable shot selection. After the hot shooting first quarter, Team USA cooled off to finish 33-79 (.418) from the field, including 22-58 (.379) in the final 30 minutes. If Team USA had not chased down 21 offensive rebounds then Spain could very well have won.

Ugly wins count just as much as beautiful ones, so Team USA got the job done and is one victory away from capturing the third straight Olympic gold medal of the Jerry Colangelo-Mike Krzyzewski era. Those two men were charged with the responsibility of resurrecting the wayward Team USA program in the wake of embarrassing performances in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and 2004 Olympics and they have more than accomplished that task, a fact which should not be ignored even as we basketball purists wish that this version of Team USA would hold itself to a higher standard than just doing enough to get by.

On paper, Spain was the biggest threat to Team USA in the Olympics. Spain is second in the world (behind only Team USA) in the FIBA rankings and prior to the semifinal game Spain led the Olympics in points allowed (70 ppg) and defensive field goal percentage (40%) while ranking second in rebounding (39.2 rpg). However, Serbia only lost to Team USA by three points in Group A play and Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the final 37 minutes of that contest. One would hope that the first game against Serbia served as a wakeup call for Team USA, because Serbia demonstrated that they are absolutely capable of competing with and possibly beating Team USA. I expect another close game and I have a hunch that Irving will hit the shot that clinches the gold medal for Team USA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM


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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Team USA Overcomes Typical Sluggish Start to Defeat Argentina, 105-78

Argentina jumped out to a 19-9 first quarter lead over Team USA and it looked like the 2004 Olympics all over again, but Team USA rallied and won going away, 105-78, to advance to a semifinal matchup against Spain on Friday. Team USA cut Argentina's lead to 25-21 by the end of the first quarter and then employed suffocating defense to build a 25 point second quarter lead before Argentina cut the margin to 56-40 at halftime. Team USA's lead hovered around 20 points for most of the third quarter before they made a late push to go up 87-61 heading into the final 10 minutes. Argentina did not get closer than 23 points in the fourth quarter.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski tweaked his starting lineup again, inserting DeAndre Jordan at center in place of DeMarcus Cousins. The other four starters were Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins noted that part of the reasoning behind the change at center is that neither Cousins nor Irving defend the screen/roll very well, so having them on the court together "brings out the worst in both players." Collins also said that in order to win Team USA's top two priorities against Argentina would be to control the boards and to defend the three point line. Despite the shaky start, Team USA finished well in both departments, winning the rebound battle 54-43 and holding Argentina to 8-32 (.250) three point shooting.

Durant scored a game-high 27 points on 9-13 field goal shooting and he also had seven rebounds and six assists. George added 17 points on 8-14 field goal shooting plus a team-high eight rebounds. George easily had the best plus/minus number (28, seven better than Durant). Cousins scored 15 points in less than 14 minutes. Irving added 11 points. Anthony, who has been touted by some as supposedly the greatest U.S. Olympic basketball player, scored seven points on just 3-10 field goal shooting. Yes, Anthony has played on two gold medal-winning teams but in Team USA's 118-107 win in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain Team USA was outscored 49-38 when Anthony was on the court, which explains why Coach Krzyzewski benched him for the final 8:13 with the outcome up for grabs. In Team USA's 107-100 victory in the 2012 gold medal game versus Spain, Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting in 21 minutes and he was again on the bench down the stretch while Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant made the key plays. If Team USA secures two more victories and Anthony wins his third gold medal he likely will once again be on the bench during crunch time of those contests while Durant, George, Irving or someone else does the heavy lifting.

Luis Scola led Argentina with 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. Manu Ginobili (14 points, seven assists), Facundo Campazzo (13 points, game-high nine assists) and Andres Nocioni (12 points, five rebounds) also scored in double figures. Argentina started three players with NBA experience (Scola, Ginobili and Nocioni) alongside point guard Campazzo and forward Patricio Garino. However, Ginobili is 39 years old while Scola and Nocioni are each 36 years old. Carlos Delfino, who once was a key cog in Argentina's attack, is still on the squad but at 33 years of age and dogged by injuries he is no longer the player he used to be.

Durant got Team USA off to a good start by drawing a foul and making two free throws but Campazzo abused Team USA's defense with three nifty drives to help Argentina go up 10-5. Argentina shot 7-9 from the field to start the game, while Team USA opened 3-13 before making four straight shots. Durant single-handedly kept Team USA in the game, scoring 13 first quarter points as Team USA slowly woke up defensively, enabling Team USA to turn a 19-9 deficit into a 25-21 advantage by the end of the quarter.

In the second quarter, Coach Krzyzewski deployed a more defensive-minded squad, inserting Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry into the lineup alongside Cousins and Durant. Cousins dominated the smaller Argentina team in the paint, while George and Butler wreaked havoc on the perimeter and Team USA extended the lead to 36-21. The score was 36-24 when Anthony returned to action. With George smothering Campazzo, Team USA was up 47-27 at the 4:10 mark when Anthony went back to the bench after committing his third foul. Anthony had scored two points on 1-5 field goal shooting.

Team USA took a 56-31 lead when Durant punctuated a beautiful crossover move with a jumper but while Team USA's bench players danced and the players on the court celebrated, Argentina hustled down court and Ginobili passed to Campazzo for a layup. Argentina closed the half on a 9-0 run in the last 1:52. Careless Team USA plays like that did not change the outcome of this game mainly because Argentina is an older team that lacks the necessary size and depth to compete with Team USA for a full 40 minutes but Eddie Johnson recently said something great on NBA Radio: "If you mess with the game, the game will mess with you." Team USA does not have the proper respect for the game and for the opposition. They might get away with it and win this tournament anyway but if they fall behind by 10 to Spain it will not be quite so easy to come back--and if they give up nine points to Spain in less than two minutes they will be flirting with disaster. Durant scored 18 points on 6-9 field goal shooting in the first half and Team USA's bench outscored Argentina's bench 28-7.

Team USA led 76-55 when Anthony sat out for good at the 4:21 mark of the third quarter after collecting his fourth person foul. Coach Krzyzewski went with the defensive-minded lineup that blew the game open in the second quarter and Team USA closed out the quarter with a mini 11-6 run to extend the margin to 87-61.

It was apparent by this point that Argentina had given all that they had to give--they are an older, undersized team that lacks depth and it just was not conceivable that they could outscore Team USA by 26 points in 10 minutes. Just looking at the final score, Team USA's victory seems impressive but Argentina's ability to effortlessly build a 10 point first quarter lead against Team USA's starters is a warning sign that Team USA should not ignore; if Argentina had the depth and youth of a decade ago they could have pushed Team USA throughout this contest and very possibly pulled off the upset.

Considering the strength of the opposition, this was Team USA's best overall performance so far in the Rio Olympics but we still saw too much sloppiness, particularly from the starting lineup in the early going. Spain has better size and depth than Argentina. If Team USA starts sluggishly versus Spain in Friday's semifinal game, it will not be so simple to wear Spain down. Team USA's starters must play better defense and Team USA's offense should not be so dependent on Durant alone, because if Team USA utilized the ball and player movement that other teams showcase against them then Team USA could get scoring contributions from a variety of players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:55 PM


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Monday, August 15, 2016

Team USA Edges France 100-97 to Finish 5-0 in Group A Play

Team USA improved to 5-0 and clinched first place in Group A with a 100-97 win over France but legitimate questions still remain about whether Team USA will win the gold medal. France outscored Team USA 51-45 in the second half despite being without the services of their floor leader, six-time All-Star/2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker (who sat out to rest for the quarterfinal round). France shredded Team USA's defense, shooting 41-73 (.562) from the field. France also outrebounded Team USA 35-29. Each team committed 13 turnovers but that is a victory for France because a major part of Team USA's strategy is to win the turnover battle and convert those extra possessions into transition points.

In the wake of Team USA's lackluster 94-91 win over Serbia, Coach Mike Krzyzewski reinserted Klay Thompson in the starting lineup and returned Paul George to the bench. The other four starters remained the same: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving. Thompson emerged from his shooting slump to score a game-high 30 points on 9-16 field goal shooting, including 7-13 from three point range. Durant scored 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting and he grabbed a team-high six rebounds. Irving (10 points, plus a U.S. Olympic record-tying 12 assists) and Anthony (10 points on 4-11 field goal shooting) were Team USA's other double figure scorers. Guards Thomas Heurtel (18 points, game-high eight rebounds, game-high nine assists) and Nando De Colo (18 points, five assists) led the way for France.

Plus/minus can be a noisy statistic, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that four Team USA players had negative plus/minus numbers in this game and three of them were starters: Cousins (-5), Anthony (-3) and Irving (-3); the other "negative" player was Draymond Green, who was -1 in just six minutes of playing time. It is probably not coincidental that the three "negative" starters are also the three starters who are the worst defensively, while Durant (who also has had his share of defensive lapses in the Olympics) was +2 and Thompson was +1.

Team USA got off to another slow start--a recurring theme during the Olympics--and trailed 9-5 after De Colo hit a jumper off of nice ball reversal and Heurtel scored a runner in the lane. De Colo and Heurtel got to wherever they wanted to go on the court for most of the game, either beating Team USA's guards off of the dribble or confusing Team USA's defense in screen/roll actions. Team USA's defense during the Olympics has been pathetic and seems to be getting worse instead of improving. Team USA is vastly more talented than any other team in this event, yet they are getting beaten defensively one on one (both in the post and on the perimeter), they are getting back doored for layups and they are defending screen/roll actions as if they have never seen them before in their lives.

I am rooting for Team USA but I cannot say that I am enjoying watching them play; they are careless, which is indicative of indifference, arrogance or some combination of both. Each Team USA player is a star on his own team, yet the players have reduced minutes and roles so there is no excuse for not playing hard at both ends of the court. Kevin Durant has repeatedly let players back door him for layups while he is blankly staring off into space. Maybe he should have signed with Houston instead of Golden State; his defense during the Olympics would mesh perfectly with James Harden's "Shaqtin' a Fool" caliber defense.

Durant looked engaged--at least offensively--for a brief spurt during the first quarter when he made a three pointer, a layup and a fast break layup to put Team USA up 12-9. He opened the game by scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting after shooting 2-4 from the field in the entire game versus Serbia. Apparently satisfied that he had fulfilled his duties for the night, Durant scored just eight points over the next three quarters--not nearly enough to compensate for his lackluster defense. Durant is unquestionably the best player on this team. He is a dominant scorer and an above average defensive player when he is so inclined. If he is content to let others do the scoring on this team, that is fine, but then he should assert himself as a defensive stopper the way that Kobe Bryant did during the 2008 Olympics. Durant has the mobility and length to guard all five positions in FIBA play.

Team USA's offense is hardly a thing of beauty but even after the slow start they poured in 30 first quarter points, so tweaking the offense should not be Coach Krzyzewski's first priority. France scored 24 points in the first quarter, putting them on pace for 96 points--and they maintained that pace the rest of the way. France should not score more than 70-75 points against Team USA, particularly with Parker sitting out.

Team USA's second unit looked sharper than the starters and they extended the lead to 36-26 before the starters began returning to action. A De Colo three pointer cut the margin to 44-40 with 3:30 remaining but France bailed Team USA out to some extent by twice fouling three point shooters: Durant and Thompson combined to make six straight free throws, helping Team USA push the lead to 55-46 at halftime. Durant and Thompson each scored 13 first half points; Thompson had scored just 11 points combined in the first four games.

Thompson put on a shooting exhibition in the third quarter, draining five three pointers and helping Team USA build a 78-62 lead with 2:23 remaining but France kept their composure and closed the quarter on a 7-3 mini run to keep the contest within reach.

Every time the camera panned to Coach Krzyzewski during the fourth quarter I thought that his head was going to explode; his face seemed to be getting redder and redder and his lips became more and more tightly pursed. Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau also looked less than pleased. After DeMar DeRozan handed free possessions to France with a careless inbounds pass followed by another turnover for traveling, Coach Krzyzewski was literally stomping mad.

As Team USA repeatedly crumbles in the fourth quarter, it is interesting to see who wants the ball. Irving definitely wants the ball but the problem is that once he gets it passing is absolutely, positively the last resort. It's not like he lacks passing skills; he is an excellent passer. Irving lacks the desire to pass the ball. The cliche saying is "He does not trust his teammates" but I think that the reality is he just has a whole lot of confidence in himself. Anthony also wants the ball but he too is very disinclined to pass it, so we are "treated" to his full repertoire of Knick moves: the endless jab steps, the pointless dribbling to nowhere and the low percentage shots with one or more defenders draped all over him. Irving and Anthony can make tough shots--but the question is why anyone on Team USA would ever take a tough shot when there are four other players on the court who are open for easier shots if one player has been surrounded defensively. Durant only wants the ball if it is delivered to him when and where he wants it. Doug Collins made a great observation about a late game Team USA offensive possession: Thompson cut through the lane and motioned to Durant to cut as well but Durant just stood in one spot as if he had been planted there like a tree. Thompson then cut back through the lane. That could be an interesting dynamic for the Golden State Warriors next season.

Speaking of the Warriors, it is worth noting that all three of Team USA's players from the 73-9 Warriors are having difficulties: Thompson had been in and out of the starting lineup before his breakout game against France, Green has not been great during his limited minutes and Harrison Barnes did not even play in three of the five games.

If Team USA is not careful, one of the upcoming games is going to end in defeat with an Irving runner or Anthony jumper bouncing off of the rim as time expires. Anthony's skill set should be well-suited to FIBA play but I have never been as convinced of his greatness as a FIBA player the way that many commentators are. He was part of the disastrous 2004 Olympic team and he was nowhere close to being the most important player for the 2008 and 2012 gold medalists, who featured the leadership/defensive intensity of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd (2008 only) plus the all-around play of LeBron James. Anthony scored a lot of points mainly because the opponents could not load up on him. This year, Anthony is the team's second leading scorer (15.2 ppg) but he has also jacked up far more shots than anyone else despite having the lowest field goal percentage among Team USA's top six scorers. Not including the two walkover games against vastly inferior competition (Venezuela and China), Anthony is shooting 18-40 (.450) from the field, including 3-8 versus Serbia and 4-11 versus France. If only Nigeria were on the remaining schedule then we could see Anthony pad his stats (as he did in the 2012 Olympics) but I question how productive--and, more importantly, how efficient--Anthony will be if Team USA needs critical baskets down the stretch of the kind that Bryant produced in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain when no one else wanted the ball.

The fourth quarter versus France was a mess for Team USA. A Joffrey Lauvergne dunk cut Team USA's lead to 85-81 at the 5:27 mark. A Mickael Gelabale jumper kept France within five points (88-83) with just 4:03 to go. Team USA led 100-90 with 1:25 left and then seemingly decided to not try for the last 85 seconds as France scored the final seven points. It is true that France scored a three pointer came at the buzzer, so this was not a one possession game in the sense that the Serbia game was (with a three pointer to tie in the air a couple seconds before regulation time ended), but it is also true that France inexplicably elected not to foul down the stretch to extend the game.

Team USA players seem to have a blase attitude of "We did not play our best and we still won" but an alternative perspective is that France was not even trying to win this game (Parker rested, France did not intentionally foul with the game still in reach) but almost won anyway. Team USA should have pressured De Colo and Heurtel all over the court--particularly with Parker out of action and France's depth thus compromised--and won this game by 25 points to send a message to the rest of the field about how committed Team USA is to tough defense and to winning the gold medal.

Team USA's first game in the quarterfinals on Wednesday will be against the fourth place finisher in Group B, which will be determined by the results of Monday's final Group B games. If Team USA loses on Wednesday, they will be eliminated from medal contention. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM


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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Team USA Takes Big Lead, Then Survives Furious Comeback to Edge Serbia, 94-91

Team USA held on for dear life to emerge with a 94-91 victory over Serbia, who dropped to 1-3 in Group A play. Team USA improved to 4-0 in Group A with one game left to play and clinched a spot in the quarterfinal round but the gold medal that was once considered a foregone conclusion now looks anything but certain. Team USA was expected to dominate one of the weaker fields in recent Olympic history but this Team USA squad looks less like a Dream Team than like the nightmare group that stumbled to a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is being forced to shorten his rotation and experiment with different lineups; Harrison Barnes did not play at all versus Serbia, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan played just 10 minutes each and former starter Klay Thompson's minutes were slashed to just nine as he continues to struggle with his shot (1-6 field goal shooting versus Serbia).

Kyrie Irving led Team USA in scoring (15 points) and assists (five, tied with DeMarcus Cousins). DeAndre Jordan added 13 points in 13 minutes on 4-4 field goal shooting. Carmelo Anthony, who scored 31 points and shot 9-15 from three point range in Team USA's 98-88 win over Australia, scored just 12 points on 3-8 field goal shooting (including 1-5 on three pointers). Paul George added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Kevin Durant had a quiet 12 points in a game-high tying 30 minutes. DeRozan made the most of his limited playing time with 11 points in 10 minutes.

The best player on the court was Serbia's Nikola Jokic, who scored a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting while also grabbing a team-high six rebounds and dishing for three assists. Jokic made the NBA All-Rookie First Team last season as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Serbia outscored Team USA by two points during his 30 minutes of action. Milos Teodosic scored 18 points and had a game-high six assists. Starting center Miroslav Raduljica scored 18 points in 14 minutes before fouling out.

Team USA's half court offense is stagnant at times--as described below--and that is justifiably a source of concern but offense is not the main problem for Team USA: 94 points on 27-55 (.491) field goal shooting should be good enough to win by a comfortable margin. The biggest issue is that Team USA's so-called "pitbull" defensive unit looked like a bunch of poodles for much of the contest. Serbia shot 31-60 (.517) from the field, including 10-25 (.400) from three point range. Serbia ran their offense patiently and precisely, shredding Team USA's defense. Paul George was disappointed in his team's performance but impressed by Serbia's effort: "Once again, we relied on natural talent. This is why these guys are special in our league. These international guys really know how to move and really know how to cut. It's more about how they're running their offense. It's wearing us down. It's like they don't get tired."
Serbia outscored Team USA 76-67 over the final three quarters of the game. In fact, after Team USA opened the game with a 9-0 run in the first three minutes, Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the next 37 minutes. If Team USA is not worried, they should be. This Serbia team is not an elite FIBA squad. They do not have great talent and they are not as physically imposing as a team like Australia--but Serbia is smart, poised and well-coached. Watching this game reminded me of the Pete Carril motto "The smart take from the strong."

I am not trying to bury the lede or create hype out of nothing. I understand that Team USA won the game and that there are no style points awarded for beautiful wins or taken away for ugly ones--but if Team USA keeps playing this way there is a very real chance that they will lose a game and fail to capture the gold medal.

This game featured a reversal of Team USA's previous pattern of slow starts punctuated by good second half play; the starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Kyrie Irving took a 23-5 first quarter lead and it looked like the rout was on but Serbia did not become discouraged or intimidated and they started chipping away.

Team USA's mindset is not right; there are too many technical fouls, too much negative body language and too much complaining. There is a reason that old school players scoff at the idea that today's best NBA players and teams are better than the best players and teams from previous eras. Today's stars are used to be being protected by NBA rules that favor the offense; if DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green think that Australia and Serbia play too rough, how would they have reacted to the Bad Boys or the 1990s Knicks? There is nobody in this tournament who can guard DeMarcus Cousins, yet he repeatedly commits silly fouls or turnovers because he keeps forcing the action instead of patiently using his skill set to good effect. Team USA committed two technical fouls and an unsportsmanlike foul in the first half. Those are mental mistakes indicative of a lack of focus and a lack of emotional control.

Early in the second quarter, before Serbia made their comeback, Doug Collins said, "Serbia is a well coached team. When you watch their offense, it's well spaced. They've got good principles. Guys set good screens and they roll. They really pass the ball well. The United States' pressure is just taking them out of what they want to do. Everything is contested and there is no rhythm to their game right now." Unfortunately for Team USA, Serbia continued to run their offense with precision while Team USA's pressure became less effective. Right after Collins' comment, Serbia made a couple crisp passes culminating in a layup by Nikola Kalinic to cut the margin to 31-20. Teodosic then hit a three to pull Serbia within eight points, 31-23.

Serbia made Team USA look like the Washington Generals on one particular second quarter possession as all five players touched the ball in quick succession before Jokic made a short runner. "That was ball movement at its finest there," Collins noted with respect. Team USA defenders were out of position, making poor gambles and lunging for fakes instead of playing sound, fundamental basketball. Team USA's next possession consisted of one pass and a contested three point attempt by Anthony that bounced off the front of the rim. Jokic then beat everyone down the court for a fast break dunk that cut Team USA's lead to 40-31. Team USA suddenly looked like the New York Knicks.

Serbia outscored Team USA 26-23 in the second quarter to trail 50-41 at halftime.

In the opening moments of the third quarter, Collins succinctly summarized Team USA's offense: "A lot of standing around." In contrast, Serbia executed smoothly and a nice screen/roll action culminated in a Jokic dunk to cut Team USA's lead to 58-53 nearly midway through the third quarter.

It is becoming apparent that any team that avoids committing open court turnovers and forces Team USA to execute in the half court has a good chance to at least keep the score close. Team USA relies on pressure defense to lead to create easy scoring opportunities and does not have a discernible, consistent plan in the half court other than isolating one player and hoping that he can create something.

Team USA narrowly outscored Serbia 22-21 in the third quarter and led 72-62 heading into the final stanza. One would expect Team USA's depth and athleticism to have greater impact as the game goes on but the opposite was the case, at least against Serbia. Serbia opened the fourth quarter with good inside-outside ball movement culminating in a Jokic three pointer. After Jordan split a pair of free throws, Jokic then cut to the basket for a layup and Team USA only led 73-67 with 9:03 remaining. Marko Simonovic cut on the baseline for a layup at the 8:06 mark to make the score 75-70 as Durant did his best James Harden "Where did he go?" impersonation on defense.

Teodosic's off the dribble three pointer over Jimmy Butler at the 7:28 mark lifted Serbia to within four, 77-73. Instead of facing pleasant decisions such as making sure everyone on the roster gets in the game and scores a point, Coach Krzyzewski had to give serious consideration to which five players he trusted to close out a game with the outcome in doubt.

After the foul-plagued Raduljica checked back in, he hit Cousins with a series of post moves and fakes that looked like Kevin McHale circa 1987 before making a layup to keep Serbia within two possessions, 81-75--but Raduljica collected a loose ball foul on Team USA's next possession and fouled out.

Jokic's three pointer with 3:13 left made the score 90-85 Team USA. At that point, Team USA had Irving, George, Durant, Anthony and Cousins on the court. Coach Krzyzewski replaced Cousins with Draymond Green, electing to go small in order to better match up defensively with Serbia's screen/roll game. Jokic scored on an offensive rebound, punishing Team USA's relative lack of size. Anthony bailed out a bad Team USA offensive possession by hitting a long two point jumper with one second left on the shot clock. He was fouled on the play but he missed the free throw, so Team USA led 94-87 with 2:11 to go.

Jokic cut for a layup and drew a foul on Durant--who was again during a Harden impersonation on defense--but Jokic missed the free throw. After no ball movement, Anthony missed a turnaround jumper on the right baseline. Serbia's passing and cutting created an open three pointer for Bogdan Bogdanovic but he missed the shot that could have made it a one possession game with 1:21 left. Irving fouled Teodosic in the ensuing loose ball scramble and Teodosic calmly nailed two free throws. Team USA led 94-91.

With the game on the line, Team USA's next possession consisted of Irving dribbling and dribbling before missing a floater. Team USA did not run a play, did not pass the ball and did not get the ball into the hands of Durant or Anthony, the presumptive closers (Irving is a good closer, too, but instead of just dribbling for 20 seconds or so he would have been better served to pass and cut). Surprisingly, Serbia also went to isolation ball on their next possession, as Jokic went one on one against Green in the post and missed a bank shot. Team USA's next possession was equally stagnant and culminated in a George airball followed by a desperation Durant heave with the shot clock winding down.

Jokic controlled the defensive rebound with :11 remaining and Serbia called a timeout with five seconds to go to set up a potentially tying three point shot. Durant defended the inbounds pass well but after a scramble Bogdanovic ended up with wide open left wing three pointer. Bogdanovic missed and Team USA escaped with a win despite being outplayed for most of the game. Bogdanovic is Serbia's best three point shooter. "They (Team USA) really got lucky on that play," Collins said. "They lost their defensive discipline...If they are going to win the gold, their offense is going to have to be more disciplined. They are going to have to get back to moving the basketball. Right now they are falling back into iso-ball and they made a ton of defensive errors tonight that could have cost them."

Earlier in the telecast, Collins suggested some reasons for Team USA's lack of sharpness, including (1) the team has not held many practices (in part because there is a desire to avoid potential injuries so that NBA owners will not be hesitant for their players to participate in the future) and (2) this squad has 10 first-time Olympians, so the roster continuity that was fostered since Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball does not exist this time around. Marv Albert noted that those reasons, valid as they may be, will not resonate with the general public if Team USA falters: "These are the top players in the world," he observed and even with the notable absences of players such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, Team USA is still easily the most talented squad in the field.

Team USA may yet win the gold medal but this team very much resembles the squads that came up short in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championship. A loss to France in the fifth and final game of Group A play would be embarrassing but not fatal--but after that Team USA needs three wins in a row to capture the gold medal. A rematch with Australia looms large as a possible obstacle but at this point Team USA cannot afford to take any of the qualifying teams lightly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 PM


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