Monday, January 26, 2009

Thinking BOLD

With extremely deep teams like the Blazers, Lakers, Jazz, and Houston, this season, the second unit, or bench squad, has become nearly as important as the starters.

Teams like the Nuggets, Spurs, Cavs, and Magic have developed benches this year and remain at the top of their divisions due to that added depth. While injury-plagued teams like Houston and the Jazz have hung in the playoff race mainly due to their depth.

On the flipside, good to very good teams like the triple H trio of the Heat, Hawks, and Hornets haven’t been able to take that next step due to their thin benches.

In light of all this, it’s definitely time for some gut checks from certain NBA stars who say they want to win, who say they want to do whatever it takes… Well, it’s time for some NBA teams, namely, NBA coaches, to be BOLD.

There were a few teams that started this bold thinking. Ironically, the team who has a rep for being boring, has taken some of the boldest steps over the past few seasons…and you know what? They’ve won the whole damn thing four times. From mining the wealth of European stars to sitting stars for the entire fourth quarter in potentially winnable games, the Spurs have been that BOLD team.

They also did a little move that has helped make them one of the greatest franchises in league history. That would be bringing Manu Ginobili, a superstar talent, off the bench.

This season, other teams have followed suit.

Exhibit A: the Los Angeles Lakers, who, admittedly, copied the Ginobili experiment and asked Lamar Odom, who had pretty much started every single game of his career, to lead the bench mob.

The result? The Lakers have the best bench in the entire league. Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic along with Odom change the entire pace of the game and play frenetic, fast-paced ball, that aggressively traps and oftentimes fullcourt presses and makes life miserable for the opposition who has to try and adapt to two different styles and basically gets a group of starters playing off the bench.

As a side result to that, the Lakers 7-foot future, Andrew Bynum, is starting to blossom playing alongside all the veterans. Pau Gasol has meshed perfectly with the 21-year-old and Kobe Bryant and Fisher are looking to get him the ball.

Oh yeah, the Lakers sport the best record in the West (35-8). Pretty nifty outcome for thinking bold, wouldn’t you agree?

Exhibit B: the Utah Jazz, who, despite all the injuries to key players have remained in the playoff hunt. They started the season bringing Andrei Kirilenko off the bench, and before Boozer and then Milsap went down with injuries, that little trick was working like a $5,000, well, nicely.

Hopefully, you can see where this post is headed.

Aside from exhibits A & B, there is also the recent Jermaine O’Neal experiment. The Raptors have been fortunate enough to have Andrea Bargnani absolutely balling (20 points and 7 boards on 50 percent shooting in January) and have the luxury, much like the Lakers and pre-injured Jazz, of bringing a known star talent off the bench. While O’Neal’s star has faded considerably, so far, the bold move is paying off. The team has since rattled off a couple in a row (yeah, the Kings and Bulls, but still).

As for some of the other teams in the league, they have not been thinking boldly, and have clung to the tried and tested and the old school ways of coaching.

Maybe it’s Terry Porter and Michael Curry’s coaching styles that are preventing them from seeing the larger picture. Maybe it’s the fact that they are first year coaches (well, fairly new to coaching in Porter’s case) with big shoes to fill. Maybe it’s the high profile star power that they are dealing with. Or perhaps it's a combination of all of these things

Whatever it is, the obvious solution is staring them in the face and they are refusing to go with it.

I’ve been talking about bringing Nash off the bench for quite some time now. Check here for that blog.

Recapping, it gives the Suns two strong units. Nash, if playing his style of basketball (run and gun) can turn anyone into a viable contributor. But force him to slow down and play with Shaq? Then we have his highest turnover percentage of his career (worse than his rookie campaign) and his lowest FG percentage in four years.

Starting J Rich, Amare, Shaq, Grant Hill and Barbosa or even Dee Brown, would allow J-Rich to have a more useful impact in the offense. Shaq has won four titles in his career, and they’ve all been playing with a great wing player. Now, this Shaq isn’t close to 3peat Shaq, nor is he quite Heat Shaq, and, J-Rich ain’t even a poor-man’s Kobe, but neither is he a catch and shoot, fourth option. With Shaq and J-Rich, the duo-dynamic is there.

With this lineup, Grant Hill can run point forward and be in charge of the main ball handling duties. Besides, in a half court offense that focuses around Shaq, all a team simply needs is a point guard who can dump the ball into the post and shoot the long ball (think Scott Skiles, think old Jason Williams, think Ron Harper, think Brian Shaw). Leandro Barbosa might not be as smart a player as any of them, but he’s definitely at least as talented.

With the starters set, Shaq accumulating fouls on the defense early, battering the bigs, abusing the post, with about 3 minutes left in the first quarter, that’s when the Suns will unleash the hounds. A second unit of Nash, Barbosa, Barnes, Amundson and Amare would be devastatingly fast and explosive.

Bringing a two-time MVP off the bench, now that’s thinking BOLDLY.

Which brings me to another former MVP who should be coming off the bench. How many conference finals have the Detroit Pistons been to the past six years?


They accomplished this feat based not on any superstar talent (though, Mr. Billups is proving that he’s definitely a working man’s superstar—think a point guard’s version of Brandon Roy). Instead, they built a strong team unit, that knew how to play well together—very well, excellent in fact.

Ben Wallace/Antonio McDyess, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Chauncey Billups.

Sure, over the years, they’ve replaced core guys here and there. The first being Wallace. The team quickly filled his hole with McDyess and Jason Maxiell. Despite the change, they didn’t really miss a beat.

This season, wisely predicting the emergence of Rodney Stuckey after easing him into the system last year, they sent Chauncey packing to “renew” the point guard position like they did with the center/power forward spot two years before.

But instead of continuing this natural cycle, they’ve tried to force a square peg into a round hole.

AI’s the Detroit’s Yoko Ono.

No disrespect to the Answer, but the question is where should he play, and the solution is on the second unit.

A superstar coming off the bench? Yes, think Ginobili.

But Ginobili is no Allen Iverson…right from both sides of that argument.

So, instead, let’s look at this in a different light. Do you remember way back in 2001, back when Iverson was the face of the Sixers franchise? Do you remember who the other faces he was playing with were?

Nope, neither does anyone else. The point is, he won his MVP that year and took that team to the finals with a group of nobodies (sorry Mutumbo).

If AI is options 1,2 and 3 on a second unit featuring Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo and Jason Maxiell, irregardless of the noticeable regression in his game this season, he will kill second units like it’s 2001. He’s still AI. He’s still a top 10 shooting guard.

On this Detroit team, his rightful place is to lead a second unit squad. His place is to kill second units.

He’s not here to change the flow of that tight as hip hugger jeans’ camaraderie and team-first approach. Let’s face it, try as he might, AI isn’t a team-oriented guy. He’s a great, great teammate, but not a team player. There’s no team in AI.

Bringing Iverson off the bench would not only keep that first unit flowing like they have for the past six years, but it would also allow the youngins to develop into the system. Look how beautifully Stuckey has progressed in this model.

AI is most likely only a one year rental. Why has Curry allowed him to muck up the system? Let's be real. Iverson's got zero rings. He got close, but he’s never won anything. The Pistons system got them a ring and another finals appearance.

In Phoenix, the newbie, Shaq, is the one with the rings. Despite it previously being Nash’s team, going with the ring bearer isn’t a bad idea.

But in both cases, BOLD thinking needs to be adopted. Bringing both of the former MVP guards off the bench will boost both squads into the elite class, giving them both elite starting units and elite benches.
Remember, not everyone can be Boston and mesh superstar talent together.
The Lakers have been bold this year, and they have a huge depth advantage as well as the best bench in the league and are poised to represent the West in the Finals once again.
The Spurs have been bold for years and have four rings to show for it.
And, there’s no BOLDER statement than winning a ring…

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wade vs Kobe

There was some hype going into last night’s Heat versus Lakers game that featured the two premiere shooting guards facing off in Los Angeles. There was added intrigue for Lakers fans, due to the Heat being one of only 6 other teams who have beaten the reigning Western Conference champs.

The game featured the league’s top (Wade) and third leading scorer (Bryant) butting heads. Literally. Wade finished the game with an ice pack on his head and Bryant had to have 4 stitches above his right eye. It was a gritty matchup, unlike their high-scoring affair three Christmas' ago.

The Heat stayed in the game thanks to the hot shooting of rookie Michael Beasley who drilled 10-16 shots for 23 points and the three point accuracy of Daequan Cook who shot 5-9 from downtown. Looked like he got his wrist slapped at the end of the game, but I see that happen to Kobe all the time, so, no harm no foul I guess. The Lakers stayed in the game thanks to Andrew Bynum's 24 points and Fish's 11 assists and Pau's 18 rebounds.

As far as the main event matchup is concerned, if you were to simply check the box score, you would read that Kobe got badly outplayed by Wade. Flash finished with 27 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks, shooting 10-22 from the field.

On the other side of things, the reigning MVP made only 5-14 shots, finishing with 19 points, 7 assists, and 2 rebounds with no steals or blocks.

What the boxscore does not tell, is that Kobe, despite the poor shooting night, had the better night of the two. While Wade was pretty much asked to do everything, it was obvious that Kobe’s main responsibility was to stop Wade. #24 was up in #3’s jersey from the moment the ball was inbounded on every single Heat possession. Wade’s going to be smelling Bryant’s sweat at least until Miami plays Minny on Tuesday.

Both star guards played the entire first quarter. During that quarter, Wade shot 3-6, with a turnover and 2 assists. Kobe, amassed 6 assists and but only 3 points on one attempt.

Kobe and Wade both sat out at the beginning of the second quarter. Lakers had a 26-21 lead, and carried that until Wade entered at 8:08. At about the 7 minute mark, with Kobe still on the bench, Wade goes on a tear and proceeds to hit a 3 pointer, 2 freethrows and a 21-foot jumper to tie the game at 34-34. Overall, he’s 2-3 from the field.

At 5:33 of the second quarter, Kobe checks back in. With Kobe hounding him again, Wade finishes the quarter with a made bucket, 2 assists and 2 turnovers.

In the first half, while going up against Bryant, Wade shot 4-7, with 3 turnovers and 4 assists. When Kobe was out, Wade shot 2-3, with a pair of made freethrows.

The third quarter began with both playing the entire 12 minutes. With Kobe hounding him again, Wade misses all four of his attempts and the Heat’s 1 point lead vanishes into a 60-73 lead for the Lakers. At the 2:30 mark, Wade puts the team on his back and scores a layup and draws a foul on Gasol for the and-one. He gets to the line again for two more freethrows. Then misses another shot. For the quarter, Kobe went 4-7 from the field and 1-1 from the line with 1 assist. Wade shot 1-6 and 3-3 from the line with no assists. The Lakers carry a 71-77 lead into the fourth quarter.

In the fourth, Wade and Kobe both sit. Wade enters first at the 9:33 mark. In the span of a minute, from 8:25 to 7:24, Wade scores 7 points, all while Bryant is still riding pine. His flurry turns a 77-85 lead for the Lakers into a 3-point game 82-85.

Kobe Bryant enters at 7:11 and Wade doesn’t score the rest of the way shooting 0-4. He does, however, amass 4 assists in the final 7 minutes of play, with 3 in a row that helped knot the game at 102. But he doesn’t score, nor does he get to the line.

With Kobe manning Wade up, Flash shot 5-17 from the field, hit 3-3 freethrows for 13 points and had 8 dimes to 3 turnovers. When Trevor Ariza or Sasha Vujacic was covering Wade, Flash was 5-5 from the field, 3-4 from the line for 14 points and had one assist and no turnovers.

Basically, Kobe forced Wade, pretty much all by his lonesome (I mean, he did get help defense) to become a distributor while he was guarding him. On the flipside, Kobe was constantly seeing double teams, and while Flash did guard Kobe throughout the game, Kobe saw Marion down the stretch.

So, while the final box score heavily favors Flash, it was Mamba who was the silent killer and the main reason the Lakers were able to pull this game out. He played some mean, mean defense tonight, and was a huge reason why his team won despite his putrid 35 percent from the field.

More and more evidence that box scores barely tell half the story.

Above all, this game was a unique testament to the greatness of two players, displayed in completely different ways. Wade showed his brilliance by scoring half of his 27 points in the tiny window of 5 minutes when Kobe was not guarding him. Even more impressive is how Kobe was able to slow down the league's leading scorer to a 5-17 shooting performance in the other 35 plus minutes the two played together.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dunk Contest: Blow it Up!

The Dunk Contest needs to be fixed. It seemed to be getting better (thanks J-Rich) but over the past two seasons there has been some questionable judgment from the judges that has unfortunately lead to questionable winners with gimmicky, but not dunk-champ-worthy dunks.

Here’s a great article that sort of covers the basis for today’s post written by Bethlehem Shoals of Sporting News.

He basically tears down this year’s competition, reducing Dwight Howard and Nate Robinson to “novelty acts” and then chastising the omission of Gerald Green.

Oh, and any world in which Gerald Green, inventor of THE BIRTHDAY CAKE, gets snubbed for this motley bunch is not one that values the Dunk Contest as I know it. Green can jump over anyone, has that perfect mix of agility and length to make his flight downright balletic, and comes up with crazy stuff. And he has managed to stick in the league and grow up a little.
“But my major beef is with the selection process. I don't know who comes up with the first three, or the fan fave options. I don't think, though, that it's the judges. And given what a miserable track record some have had for recognizing brilliance, seeing past the obvious, or even seeing what the heck was going on, it seems like they should be the ones consulted.” I agree wholeheartedly with the travesty of not inviting Gerald Green back into the fold. His ideas for dunks were great and his athleticism translates into eye candy.

I also agree that the selection process is horrible and that the judges are old and tired and miss some of the more subtle, yet beautiful to watch (especially in super-slo motion) dunks by lesser known players.

This point has been highlighted in recent years.

Exhibit A: Nate Robinson’s "win" over Andre Igoudala (who had the best dunk I’ve ever seen outside of Vince Carter’s whole contest) after the little dude tried to dunk it 50 times before finally getting it.

Exhibit B: Dwight Howard’s “Superman” dunk that was more like a Super lay-in and had nothing on Green’s cupcake dunk.

Both are prime examples of “star” power over actual ingenuity and execution.

Here’s what I think should be done.

First off, forget this four-player garbage. I miss the eight-player format. Better, yet, why not invite ten players? What about twelve? With that many participants, each player would only get a couple chances in the first round. This will limit the standing around and waiting. Keep the action moving.

Out of a field of 10 to 12 contestants, you’re going to get a lot of creativity. Sure, there will probably be some bad stuff too, but it will also add variety and cut down on watching a dude attempt one dunk for 45 minutes.

I’ve written about how much more athletic today’s NBA is then 10-15 years ago. Every team has at the very least an MJ-esque athlete (not player or talent, strictly athleticim-wise) on their roster. Some teams have two or three of these types of athletes.

Why not give some new blood a chance to shine? I mean, the NBA has already implied this very thing in the contest's “Rising Stars” moniker. Hell, why not give other guys who would otherwise never get to go to the All-Star festivities, not just newbies, an opportunity to participate?

For example, a five-year vet like Dahntay Jones, making $800,000. Dude’s got crazy hops, has thrown down some wicked dunks this season, why not give him 30 seconds to market himself to the fans, a chance to grab a bit of spotlight? Who knows, he might put on a show and give the Nugs more buzz when they travel.

I understand that the NBA is star-driven. That’s why Chris Paul gets awarded extra assists on official stat sheets and can initiate contact and still get the foul and Dwyane Wade can’t be touched, and K.G. can bark and wag fingers and tell everyone to go eff their mothers without getting T-d up, etc. etc.

But, due to this fact, the NBA should also be all about creating stars as well. While Gerald Green isn’t a star, he did sell a bunch of jerseys when he won the contest and put on a great show in the process.

Having a larger field will get more players into the competition, and give more fans reason to watch. It will also take pressure off of the contestants and allow them to just go out and try something. Think “safety in numbers.”

It might even attract some of the league’s biggest stars (Kobe, Wade, Lebron) to come out and try a dunk in the first round, knowing they won’t have to invest a whole mess of time or energy into the event. And if they do well, and the crowd wants them to keep going, they just might.

This year’s selection of Rudy Fernandez, Russell Westbrook and Joe Alexander is a fine starting point. The NBA could go a step further and run video highlights (using NBA trademarked game footage) during commercials of all of the would-be contestants so that the fans could vote their top 10-12 into the event.

We've already seen players trying to promote their all-star selections via youtube or myspace (Amare, Bosh, etc.), so why can't the NBA promote the dunk contest? The NBa coul run 20 second commercials on all the potential candidates so that the fans could decide and vote in who they want to see. This gets the causual fan interested and invested in the event as well. The league could even have the candidates (or the teams) themselves put together the highlight reels.

How fun would those commercials be? How excited about the dunk contest would you be watching 10 or 12 different commercials of the various potential dunk contestants?

Letting the fans have complete control over something superficial like the dunk contest is exactly what fan voting is about. Tracy McGrady and VC getting voted in as starters for the AS game simply based on their name is a travesty. But the dunk contest? Fan voting would be perfect. This would also eliminate the Bird Man and Bob Sura entries of years past.

Here’s a list of a bunch of guys who could be in the dunk contest, a lot of them from teams who probably won’t get much, if any representation during All-Star weekend (click on them to see their youtube highlights):

Wolves: Rodney Carney
Rockets: Von Wafer
Raptors: Joey Graham
Warriors: Anthony Randolph
Lakers: Trevor Ariza
Jazz: Ronnie Brewer
Wizards: Nick Young
Clippers: DeAndre Jordan
Heat: Dorrell Wright
Bulls: Thabo Sefolosha

Come on NBA. The world is changing. The dunk contest needs to change too (and I'm not talking about the wheel of fortune crap either...)