Wednesday, April 30, 2008

PHX/DAL Blame Game: Save Some for Sarver, Cuban

I believe, as expressed previously on The Painted Area, that the roots of the 2008 first-round exits of the Suns and the Mavericks were set in place long before this year's playoffs, and that coaches Mike D'Antoni and Avery Johnson are taking an absurdly large share of the blame.

The idea that the lion's share of the blame in Phoenix is being absorbed by Mike D'Antoni is particularly ridiculous.

In my mind, I believe that the blame lies pretty much entirely at the feet (and closed wallet) of owner Robert Sarver, who is on course to do nothing short of ruin this proud franchise.

Let's start with the fact that Sarver is too cheap to pay the luxury tax - move Spurs starting center Kurt Thomas back to the Suns alone and this might have been a different series, considering that S.A. is otherwise pretty thin up front, and that PHX might have been able to use Krazee Eyez Kurt to stem the layup drills which bled away leads in Games 1 and 2, not to mention his 8-pt, 12-reb performance in Game 5.

It's comical that people suggest D'Antoni didn't go deep enough into his bench or develop a backup for Steve Nash. What bench?! Eric Piatkowski, at age 37, is garbage, as is Sean Marks, as is Alando Tucker (I'll grant that D.J. Strawberry maybe deserved a look to grab some minutes on D vs. Parker, but I hardly think the rookie second-rounder would have made a huge impact).

We went over this in detail in a post called Bewildered By The Suns in February, but the issue is not that D'Antoni didn't do enough to develop his bench - it's that Sarver's disastrous "strategy" of selling draft picks left this team with a hopelessly thin roster, reliant on Grant Hill, at 35, to stay healthy with essentially no Plan B.

How would Luol Deng have looked on this club? Traded for a draft pick that was ultimately sold. How about Linas Kleiza or Jason Maxiell off the bench? Both were available with the 2005 pick that was ultimately sold.

Backup point guard: have your pick of Nate Robinson, Jarrett Jack, Rajon Rondo, Jordan Farmar, Kyle Lowry, Marcus Williams or Sergio Rodriguez. All were available with picks that were sold in 2005 or 2006.

And let me say this in advance, for you to file away when the Blazers make the playoffs and the Suns don't in 2009: how would Rudy Fernandez look in a PHX uni? Sold with the 2007 draft pick.

Don't worry, there's more: picks in 2008 and what's looking more and more like a lottery pick in 2010, already sold.

If you want to blame D'Antoni for anything, it should be for things like the Marcus Banks signing during his brief tenure as GM. But that, too, is primarily Sarver's fault, for running Bryan Colangelo out of town, and trying to run things on the cheap by having D'Antoni wear two hats and perform a GM role for which he is ill-equipped.

Quite simply, the Phoenix Suns are in their current situation because of Robert Sarver, not Mike D'Antoni, period.

I suspect that D'Antoni will have the last laugh, as he'll be hired about 10 seconds after he leaves PHX to coach another team and once again prove that he is among the better coaches in the league. And meanwhile in Phoenix, Cash Considerations Sarver will continue to drive his franchise off a cliff, straight toward Secaucus, N.J., in the coming years.

I don't think the situation is as clear-cut in Dallas. Avery Johnson has proven himself to be a subpar game coach, and he had a particularly poor series vs. Golden State in 2007.

Still, to cast the coach as the primary scapegoat in 2008 seems unfair considering it seemed clear that the Dallas roster needed a significant shakeup last summer, following the shocking lack of toughness displayed in the Golden State debacle.

Of course, the shakeup came in February with the Kidd trade, and I'm still somewhat incredulous at the analysis around it: the common refrain was about how Dallas made the trade because they needed leadership and toughness. To me, if your team has problems with leadership and toughness, the problem might lie with the team's leader.

I feel like the mainstream media has been skirting around the issue for the past year - Dallas has problems with leadership and toughness - while rarely suggesting that perhaps the solution entailed trading Dirk Nowitzki.

I normally think it's an overreaction to trade a superstar, as it's tough to get value in return, but it was a rare offseason, when two of the very few players better than Dirk came on the market.

A year ago, I essentially wrote that the Mavs should try to trade Dirk to Minnesota for KG, and I believe it now just as much as I did then. Who knows, KG still has plenty to prove in terms performing deep into the playoffs, and geez, Minnesota is probably better off with Al Jefferson long-term, given his age (and reasonable contract extension). I just thought KG provided the potential to infuse toughness while also not disrupting the team's core.

Of course, Kobe Bryant appeared to be on the market as well, and I favored Dallas offering a Dirk-for-Kobe trade as well. Who knows how available Kobe actually was, or if he would have accepted a trade to Dallas if it involved Dirk leaving. I was also more reticent about this potential trade because it wasn't clean in terms of position, and would have required other moves that would have torn apart the nucleus of Big D's 67-win team.

Well, it turns out that that nucleus *has* now been torn apart, and in disastrous fashion. As we've said all along, the only thing that would make the Kidd trade successful was a championship this season; this trade only gets worse for Dallas with time, and soon at that.

As we wrote last year, we take no pleasure in ripping Dirk Nowitzki. He is as self-made of a superstar as there has ever been, and he reflects everything that is right with the NBA on a certain level. By any objective measure, he was the least of Dallas's problem vs. the Hornets, as he averaged 27, 12 and 4. Josh Howard was much more of an issue, on and off the court, for certain.

Still, something about this team still feels rudderless in terms of player leadership, and we're sorry but that still points to the team's leader. As much as we fancy our analysis to be rational more than emotional, I do believe the David West "cheek-touching" incident to be indicative. Dirk certainly was right to keep his cool, esp. considering the damaging playoff suspensions Dallas has endured in recent years, but he could have reacted with at least a little bit of controlled fire, in aprt to rally his teammates. Instead, he did nothing, and more importantly, his teammates did nothing, either.

Ultimately, we feel like the primary blame in Dallas lies with Mark Cuban. He should have demanded a measured revamping of his team after the Warriors series last summer. Instead, he succumbed to a panic trade at the deadline.

And he was loyal to a fault in not so much as considering to trade his favorite player of his ownership tenure, Dirk Nowitzki. While we think there's a certain amount of honor in that stance, and we admire and respect Cubes for it, the stark reality is that we don't think it was good for his franchise in terms of wins and losses, and competing for championships.

And now it is too late. Young players like Devin Harris, Sagana Diop and two draft picks are gone. Meanwhile, the Mavs are saddled with a roster of thirtysomethings, and there is not equal value to be had for Dirk this summer. We think that, as in Phoenix, this one gets worse before it gets better.

Given the state of the Western Conference, it wouldn't shock us if both of these perennial contenders are out of the playoffs by 2010, if not next season.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Offense Up Again in '07-08

We did a post back in October about how offensive numbers had been trending upward for the past few years, and the trend largely continued in 2007-08.

Here's an update on this year's headlines:

1. Points per game: Oh so close to 100!

Scoring was up to an average of 99.92 ppg per team, so tantalizingly close to cracking the 100 ppg mark for the first time since 1994-95.

Here's how ppg numbers have plummeted and climbed back up since that season:
94-95: 101.4
95-96: 99.5
96-97: 96.9
97-98: 95.6
98-99: 91.6
99-00: 97.5
00-01: 94.8
01-02: 95.5
02-03: 95.1
03-04: 93.4
04-05: 97.2
05-06: 97.0
06-07: 98.7
07-08: 99.9

2. Three-point shooting better than ever

Three-point shooting jumped from .358 on '06-07 to .362 in '05-06. The only time that number's ever been higher was '95-96 (.367), one of three years that the line was moved in.

The average team went 6.5-18.1 per game from behind the arc, both of those numbers improved upon records set last season (6.1-16.9). As you can see, that number for attempts shattered the mark from last season. That jump of 1.2 attempts/game was the biggest jump (other than when the line was moved in) since '92-93, when the number went up by 1.4 attempts/game (7.6 to 9.0) from the previous season.

We carped on this in our post from last year, but I'm going to bring it up again: this story of improved offense/shooting is criminally under-reported after all the stories a decade ago about how scoring/shooting numbers were going down and how that was a sign of a) players not caring about fundamentals and b) deterioration of the league in general (all the while ignoring how better defense than ever was being played).

Where are all the stories in return now about how outside shooting is better than ever? It's not even close: outside shooting has taken a quantum leap over that of previous generations. Today's players are the greatest outside shooters in the history of basketball, period.

In 1985-86, the average team went 0.9-3.3 from three for a robust .282 percentage. Michael Cooper ranked 7th with a percentage of .387; in 2007-08, he would have ranked 47th.

Isiah Thomas ranked 19th that season with a percentage of .309; in 2007-08, he would have ranked 114th. Only five players who qualified for the league leaders this season shot worse from downtown (interestingly, two of those were Tracy McGrady and Kevin Durant).

3. Field-goal shooting was sort of down slightly, sort of up slightly

FG% was down slightly from .458 in '06-07 to .457 in '07-08, though that was still the second-highest number since 1995-96.

However, I still believe that Adjusted Field-Goal Percentage (i.e., granting an extra .5 FG made for each three-point shot made, to account for how many points are scored per field-goal attempt) is a more accurate number of field-goal shooting than raw FG% in this era of voluminous three-point attempts.

In 2007-08, the Adjusted FG% went up slightly, from .496 to .497, which is as high as this number has ever been, when the record number of three-point makes is accounted for.

Free-throw shooting was up from .752 last season to .755 in '07-08, the third-highest number since 1991-92.

Also, the 81.5 field-goal attempts per team per game were the second-highest since 1993-94, and up from 79.7 last season.

4. Assists were up slightly, but still down historically

Assists per game went up from 21.3 in 2006-07 to 21.8 in 2007-08. Most of that rise was due simply to more field goals being made, as the percentage of assists per field goal was about 58.5%, as opposed to 58.4% last season.

Both of these assist numbers are down from a generation ago - there were 26.0 assists per game, on 61.0% of FGs, in 1986-87.

That assist/FG pct held steady even as raw numbers dropped - it was at 60.9% in 2003-04. It seems like the crackdown on handchecking has cut down on assists a little bit as it's opened up more lanes for dribble penetration.

Thanks to Basketball Reference for all the numbers:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Playoffs Musings & Observations

Some early random thoughts:

- Early on, things are reminding me a little bit of the 2001 Playoffs in that, even when the games are blowouts, they've still been compelling because so many young players are announcing their presence with authority on the big stage.

In '01, I think the highlight of this phenomenon was the Philly-Toronto series, a seven-game set in which Iverson went for 54 in Game 2, Vince came back at him for 50 in Game 3, before AI delivered his answer with 52 in Game 5.

Look at the insane numbers that the 23-and-under crowd are putting up through two games this year:
* LeBron: 31 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 8 apg, 55% FG
* CP3: 33.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 12.5 apg, 3.5 spg, 64% FG
* Howard: 27 ppg, 21 rpg, 4 bpg, 67% FG

Not to mention guys like Amare, Duncan, Bosh, Gasol, D Williams and others have all delivered big-time performances so far.

Ernie said that D-12 joined Wilt and Nate Thurmond as the only guys to go 20-20 back-to-back in the playoffs, and TNT also showed the ridiculous company that Chris Paul is in, in terms of consecutive 30 pt-10 ast games in the playoffs.

MJ is the only guy with 3, and here's the list of guys with 2 that CP3 has joined: Nash, Magic, Mayor Kevin Johnson, The Big O, Jerry West and John Havlicek.

Always fun to watch emerging players and...

- ...I also think it's always fun to watch champions try to hang onto their crown through sheer mental toughness even when their talent level is slipping, so I find myself strangely pulling for the Spurs.

I've loved watching the Suns as much as anybody, would love to see Nash get a well-deserved title, for Amare to move up the ladder of great players, and for the Diesel to get one last hurrah. I love what their style of play has done for the league, and I think their fans deserve the title which has long eluded them.

That said, I'm finding myself drawn to the Spurs. I really thought S.A. was shot for the night midway through the 2nd Q in Game 2 - they were getting no offense outside of their Big 3, and they absolutely couldn't stop Amare.

But then they just stuck together, like always, slowly fought back, like always, and displayed their supreme mental toughness yet again, like always.

- Other Suns-Spurs notes:
* The Suns-Spurs matchup seems to be drawing a lot of interest because it's seen as a big rivalry. Why is it seen as a rivalry? In no small part because it's the third time they've met in the last four years.

This was the point in our post on why playoff re-seeding would be bad (which we don't think we expressed very well): if you seed the playoffs as one big group of 16, you make it much less likely that these teams meet up in any given year. Which lessens the chance that this or any other rivalry will get a chance to develop.

* Poorly officiated game tonight, I thought - lots of missed foul calls and fairly uneven on several out-of-bounds calls, too.

* What was with the rush to immediately label this as the greatest first-round series ever after the classic Game 1? Let the thing play out. Chill.

- My goodness, the Mavs are a complete mess right now. What was up with those double teams on Paul in the first quarter, in which N.O. stormed out to a 39-29 lead from which they never looked back?

That was some of the most pathetic team defense in terms of double teaming that I think I've ever seen. Not even an attempt to rotate over on shooters, or for the double-teamer to scramble back in help-and-recover. Half-hearted effort to close off Paul's space. Certainly no aggressiveness in trying to turn the trap into TOs.

I'm not asking for the '91 Bulls trap out here, but come on - it was like they were fine with letting the Hornets play 4-on-3, and then sure enough, here was one of Avery's postgame quotes: "They were playing 4-on-3 sometimes, which we wanted them to do, and [Morris] Peterson made shots, [Tyson] Chandler caught some lobs, and they really jumped out on us in the first quarter."

Really? You wanted them to play 4-on-3? Then this club is in more trouble than I thought.

- I don't think I've ever heard Magic laugh as hard as he did when he spotted the flat top, at around the 2:25 mark:

- You know, I respect how the Jazz are playing, and think they're a contender, but I just can't get the end of last season out of my mind, when Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and Derek Fisher essentially called out selected teammates for already having vacations planned and not showing much desire in the Western Conference Finals.

The players being referred to were thought to include Okur and Kirilenko, and I just can't help but wonder if Utah can count on these guys to deliver the supreme mental toughness that it's going to take to scale the Western Conference this year.

- T-Mac may have been a hero for carrying his depleted Rockets for three quarters in Game 2, but I don't think his subpar fourth quarter was strictly due to fatigue - looked like the same subpar shot selection I've been seeing for awhile.

- I apologize if I'm late to the party here, but I just saw this stat on John Hollinger's chat transcript: Jose Calderon's assist/TO ratio in April was 66:1! That might be the most amazing stat I've seen all season. He had a TO last night, though - what a scrub! Now he's down to 79:2 for April, counting playoffs.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Eastern Conf. 1st Round Previews

CELTICS (1) vs. HAWKS (8): Let's keep this brief. I expect the Celtics to be fired up from the start, and if the Hawks can keep any game within single digits they should be satisfied.

PISTONS (2) vs. SIXERS (7):
If the Pistons don't dick around, like they are prone to do, not sure why this series should go more than 5. But then again, Detroit has a habit of treating some playoff games as they're meaningless regular season games. If the Pistons just make a concerted effort of getting back in transition, not sure how Philly will compete.

Detroit's defense is just too good in the half-court. I think the Pistons can absolutely suffocate the Sixers' offense if they really want to. The Pistons can trap & scramble freely knowing that they will probably not be punished by the pass coming out of the doubles since the Sixers can't catch-n-shoot (Lou Williams is the only one to be slightly concerned about).

Flip also likes to mix in zone looks as much as any coach--3-2 zone with Tayshaun on top is a favorite. A great idea vs. maybe the worst outside shooting team in the league; Philly really has no outside shooting threat. Not to mention no dangerous post option or anyone who really needs a double-team. It's pretty amazing Mo Cheeks has this team hovering around .500.

The strength of the Sixers defense is the ability to force turnovers which helps trigger there break, where their collection of wing athletes can excel--Philly is 4th in the league in steals. The issue for the Sixers--Detroit is one of the best teams at taking care of the ball.

Philly maybe can get by with their style in the regular season catching team in one-game scenarios, but when a team has a week to two weeks to focus on them, especially a team as good defensively as Detroit, not sure how Philly is gonna score consistently.

MAGIC (3) vs. RAPTORS (6)

Think this will be a relatively competitive series, and the Raps could push the Magic if they keep their mistakes to a minimum. The Raps are great at taking care of the ball, and they have a distinct advantage in the series with a favorable turnover margin.

Toronto has to consider the strategy of hacking Howard when he has deep position & trying to score. Dwight's shooting 59% from the line this year. The Raps have some expendable big bodies in Humphries & Brezec. And Rasho & Bargs can use some fouls as well; basically every big besides Bosh should be hammering Dwight. Just send Humphries out the floor with the edict to be as physical as he can with Dwight & clobber the piss out of him if he's in a good position to score (just like Eddie Shore, old-time hockey, eh).

Hedo running the high screen/roll has caused problems for many teams this year. And I'm not really sure the Raps have anyone who can challenge his shot on the perimeter. Will see if Jamario Moon & Delfino can disrupt Hedo's rhythm.
Both squads are adept at drilling outside shots, should just neutralize each other from the 3pt. line.

Raptors definitely have the advantage at the point, and need to attack the Magic defense with Calderon/Ford's creativity off the dribble. Bosh needs to play with much more aggression than he did last year vs. the Nets, and he has the ability to cause Rashard Lewis problems. The Raptors should not be afraid to take the ball into the lane at Dwight. Sure, he will block a few of your shots, but you could also draw a few fouls. And Dwight might become less active if he picks up a few fouls knowing he does not have much interior help off the bench.

CAVS (4) vs. WIZARDS (5)

The hardest series in the 1st round to gauge in my estimation. Not really sure what to expect from either team. Neither team has been at full-strength all year.

The Cavs have had guys shuffle in-n-out with injuries and have not seemed to gel since the multi-player trade. Never had their full compliment of players in the lineup at the same time. And the Wizards have to make room for Arenas, a high-volume shooter who needs a lot of touches, after getting use to functioning well without him for 60+ games. Plus, add Caron Butler's uncertain health to the mix.

Cavs have been slowly getting better on the defensive end throughout the year, but they are still not back to being where they were last year. They probably had the top defense in the East last year, and combined with its stellar rebounding was the key for their conf. title.

The Wizards are hard to get a bead on with Arenas just coming back, and trying to implement him back into the lineup. Never know what you're gonna get with Gil: he might go off for 30+ one night, but follow it up with a 6-22 shooting night with 5 TOs. And sometimes you get the ying/yang of Gil in the same game, like the other night vs. Philly.

Cavs have to get more creative in the offensive sets. I have always been a proponent of running more offense thru Big Z. His underrated passing skills have been underutilized for my tastes. Will surely see some pick-n-pop action with Bron & Z, and Big Z needs to drill some jumpers to hopefully peel Haywood away from the lane.

Wally, Delonte, & Gibson must drill outside shots to open up Lebron's lanes. Otherwise, the Wizards will block off the lane and dare LeBron to be a jump-shooter.

Wizards will look look to get Jamison & Butler going on the offensive end. Jamison & Butler have the ability to post-up, but also can float out on the perimeter. Jamison will frustrate the defense with his quick release around the rim--he uses a very unique shot that's sort of a combo of a hook & jumper, he kinda pushes the ball up at the rim. It will interesting to see how often Coach Jordan chooses to post Butler if Lebron is guarding him.

DeShawn Stevenson has really turned himself into a long-ball threat, he usually will drill 2-3 bombs a game, and needs to be identified in transition because he will pull the trigger on the run.

Can the Wizards' defense piece a few games of solid play together is a key question. Probably don't have to be great, since they have such an advantage on the offensive end overall. The Wizards still are the worst defensive team in the playoffs. Then again, the Cavs are one of the worst offensive team in the playoffs (only the Sixers are worst), so they might balance out.

Could go either way with this pick; should be the most competitive matchup in the East. If the Cavs were playing defense like they were last year I think I would feel more confident with picking the Cavs. Think the Wizards' improved rebounding & not-terrible-anymore defense should sneak them by this year.


M. Haubs' Picks:
First Round: Celtics in 4, Pistons in 5, Magic in 6, Cavs in 7
Conf Semis: Celtics over Cavs in 5, Pistons over Magic in 5
Conf Finals: Celtics over Pistons in 5
NBA Finals: Celtics over Lakers in 6

Western Conf. 1st Round Previews

LAKERS (1) vs. NUGGETS (8):
Denver is one of the best 8-seeds of all-time, and are not an easy out for the Lakers. But the Nugs have a tendency to be an erratic bunch from game to game. If Denver can find some way to find some consistency on the defensive end, they could possibly make this series interesting.

Camby looks to be a good matchup vs. Gasol--Pau likes to face-up a lot in the 12-15 area, and Camby's got the length & athleticism to follow Pau. But the bigger issue for the Nugs is who is guarding Kobe? And how do they plan to guard him as a team? You could be seeing more of Smith/Kleiza instead of Carter this series to give Denver more size in the backcourt. JR Smith, Kleiza, & Najera have to step up in this series--the Nugs' lack of bench scoring hurt them last year vs. the Spurs.

The Nugs are a fairly dangerous offensive team, but the Lakers are just downright potent on offense. They have every facet covered: depth, versatility, great size, multiple shooters, multiple passers, and Kobe. Denver might be able to extend this series to 6, but I feel LA's balance is too much to handle.

Some say Paul will torch Kidd, but it's not as simple as that. Paul is sprung free a lot of the time thanks to a high ball screen. So it's not really how well Kidd can presumably cover Paul, but how the Mavericks cover the high P/R as a team. Kidd will be looking to go underneath the screen. Make Paul a jump-shooter--I know he's improved, but make him prove he can drill shots every game, he's much less dangerous when he's out on the perimeter.

Have to be judicious with double-teams of Paul on the P/R. There's not a better guy in the NBA that can split/squirm/sneak around a double-team than Paul. And when he does it, you have two defenders left behind in his wake & Paul with a head of steam heading into the lane.

The Hornets' second option after the Paul P/R is David West getting the ball at the high post area either off of P/Rs with Paul or just iso-ing. He's always a danger to stick the mid-range jumper, but he's capable of driving the ball as well.

As much as Paul can presumably cause problems for Kidd, when Paul is guarding Kidd, the Mavs can run Kidd into the post, and force the Hornets to double-down. And the Mavs did this on Wed. nite with some success--the Kidd post-ups led to good looks on the perimeter.

Think Jason Terry could be the decisive factor in this series. He's done a great job all year providing instant offense off the pine. And needs to keep burying his perimeter looks, especially the shots coming from doubles on Dirk & Kidd's post-ups & isos. Look for Dirk-Terry P/R action, has been successful this year, and they will mix it up with Terry setting the screen for Dirk.

Mavs get much more movement in their offensive sets than a year ago (even before Kidd came over). They still like to iso Dirk & Josh Howard at the foul line area, but nowhere near as much as last year. Actually, Howard seems to get the majority of the iso calls up top.

The Hornets like to force turnovers and it's a important part of their defense. The only issue is the Mavs don't turn the ball over that much. Hornets should consider putting Chandler on Dirk for short stretches. Think Tyson can handle him away from the basket area for short doses, and will not need to double Dirk as much.

Think the Mavs matchup well with the Hornets--Mavs are just as good defensively & are somewhat better on the boards. Peja has a history of struggling in the playoffs, and the Mavs have a good antidote to Peja in Howard. Also, the Mavs have the better bench, and will see if that becomes a factor.

If Dallas can be smart on how they contain Paul off of the high screen & make him take perimeter shots, they look to be in good shape for a first-round win.

SPURS (3) vs. SUNS (6):
This shapes up to be a doozy. Safe to say this is the premier 1st round series, and the one 1st round series with two legit title contenders. Phoenix's overall defense is still mediocre, but they seem to be tuned in & highly motivated when they face the Spurs. Though, the Spurs do have a little more room for error in this series because of the extra home game.

Spurs' offense is not as good as its been in the past. And it's not just their aging supporting cast, but it's the Big 3 that could effectively be neutralized in this series.

Shaq has always guarded Tim well going back to his Laker days. Timmy needs to starting spinning baseline more when Shaq is checking him. Most of his moves see him heading into the middle of the painted area. Shaq seems to handle these moves well. But I think if Timmy would countermove to the baseline more Shaq will be off-balance more, and maybe lead to more fouls.

And the way he sits back in the lane defensively could deter the most dangerous aspects of Parker's & Manu's game. Spurs have to be looking to take jumpers off the P/R, because there is sure to be wide open looks for either guard or roll guy if Shaq is involved. The pull-jumper for the guard (16ft-20ft area) should be wide-open when Shaq's involved with the P/R. Shaq refuses to come out, just lays back in the lane. I think the advantage for the Suns in this series, is the Spurs might not take advantage of the open looks off the P/R. Manu & Parker prefer to get into the lane, any team will accept Parker shooting jumpers.

This is why I think Kurt Thomas could be an X-factor. Pop needs to get him in involved in pick-n-pop action when Shaq is guarding him & even when Amare's guarding him. I think he will consistently have wide open looks, & can hopefully spread the floor better than Oberto can. Bowen, Barry, & Finley need to drill their open looks.

Suns still run a fair amount of their patented high screen/roll with Amare & Nash, but they look to move it to the side more when Shaq is in the game. Suns are running some more double high-post action with Amare & Shaq, Nash will choose which big to go off. It's seems Phoenix's main focus on offense is to get Amare the ball starting around the high post & letting him attack the rim. Obviously, he attacks the rim rolling off the P/R as well.

Spurs should still be trying to get the Suns off the 3pt. line as much as possible, especially when the Suns go to their smaller lineup. But it's not as straightforward as in the past because Shaq causes unique issues for the Spurs. They will need to double-team him often, and this could affect their coverage of the Suns' shooters.

Think the Spurs are ripe to be beat, especially with Manu's groin an issue. Suns were always competitive with the Spurs but could never get over the hump in large part because of their poor rebounding & shoddy interior defense. But now with Shaq around, the Suns can neutralize the Spurs on the boards, and have someone who is capable of giving Duncan issues & clogging up the lane. Spurs might have to wish for constant foul trouble for Amare & Shaq, both prone to piling up stupid fouls.

JAZZ (4) vs. ROCKETS (5):
Even if Alston was healthy, thought the Jazz had the upper hand in the series, but with him out for at least the first two games, the Rockets' chances are even slimmer.

I guess Houston will start Head, though I would rather have McGrady handling most of the PG duties now. Battier & Head have to bury their looks, because I imagine Utah will send help often onto T-Mac.

Look for Scola relentlessly trying to set the high screen for T-Mac. Scola is constantly moving around, and the Jazz need to track him. Also, the other Houston PFs have a knack for sneaking around & carving out space near the basket for off. rebounds or garbage buckets.

Dikembe could be a non-entity in this series since he can't sit on the backline with Okur floating on the perimeter. Hurts the Rockets because their PFs lack size to protect the rim. Though, it would be nice if Okur & AK47 would show some more urgency in this year's playoffs.

Not really sure anyone on Houston can handle Boozer, who caused major matchup problems last year. And with Alston out, Deron doesn't really have to worry as much getting run thru screens as much, which should help his offense. Jazz also have good matchups for McGrady with both Brewer & AK47 capable of checking him without double-team help for stretches.

Utah's propensity for fouling should be less damaging this series since Houston does not draw a ton of fouls & are a poor free throw shooting club.

Just don't think the Rockets have the requisite offensive firepower to hang with Utah, who are deadly exacting & efficient on the offensive end.

M. Haubs' picks for the West:
First Round: Lakers in 5, Mavs in 6, Suns in 6, Jazz in 5
Conf Semis: Lakers over Jazz in 5, Suns over Mavs in 7
Conf Finals: Lakers over Suns in 7

'07-08 Reg. Season Awards: KG for MVP

The 2005-06 season was by far and away the most difficult time I've ever had in choosing an MVP. Four players - Dirk, Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade - were almost inseparable in my eyes. I ended up going with Kobe based on the sheer brilliance of his 35.4 ppg season, even though his Lakers won just 45 games that season. (Of course, an entirely different guy - Steve Nash - ended up somehow winning the award.)

This season is not quite that close, but it's up there, as there are once again four candidates - Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Chris Paul - who are all worthy of holding up the Mo Podoloff.

Here is how I rate the top 15, with commentary to follow:
1. Kevin Garnett, Boston
2. Chris Paul, New Orleans
3. Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers
4. LeBron James, Cleveland
5. Dwight Howard, Orlando
6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio
7. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix
8. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
9. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
10. Steve Nash, Phoenix
11. Paul Pierce, Boston
12. Chauncey Billups, Detroit
13. Carlos Boozer, Utah
14. Deron Williams, Utah
15. Tracy McGrady, Houston


66-16, 71/32.8, 18.8/9.2/3.4, .539/.000/.801, 25.30 PER

Quite simply, I believe that the single most dominant element in NBA basketball this season - without question - has been the defense of the Boston Celtics, and that Kevin Garnett has been its driving force. He has unquestionably been the best defensive player in basketball this season, and I also believe that KG's D has been a more important factor in winning games than any player's offensive play has been.

As the Western Conference race got crazier and crazier, I feel like some of the MVP arguments did as well, with so many observers seeming to focus on winning the top seed in the West as the decisive piece of criteria.

As a result, I feel like people are totally underestimating how the Celtics dominated this regular season - DOMINATED it - finishing a full nine games better than the best team in the West. And they did it not just by walloping the patsies in the East, but also by dominating the West with a 25-5 record and the first Texas Triangle sweep in seven years.

I feel like people may be numb to gaudy regular seasons after Detroit (64-18) and Dallas (67-15) crapped out in the playoffs the last two seasons.

But Boston's 66-16 has been significantly more impressive than the last two league leaders, mainly because their point differential of +10.2 is fairly historic, one of just four +10 marks in the last 35 years ('91-92, '95-96 and '96-97 Bulls are the others). Compare that to '06 DET at +6.6 and '07 DAL at +7.2.

One reason for that differential has been the quality of their losses. The C's are one of only four teams ever to lose just three or fewer games by 10+ points.

Boston's defensive numbers were at least as impressive. Their 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions led the league by a full 2.6 points over the no. 2 Rockets, and John Hollinger has noted that, in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions relative to the league, the Celtics rated along with the 1992-93 and 1993-94 Knicks, and 2003-04 Spurs, as the greatest defenses ever.

And, of course, the Celtics also set a record with a massive 42-game turnaround in KG's first year. Yes, KG has Pierce and Allen by his side, but I believe it was the will and drive of KG which was the primary force in transforming the culture, the mentality, and ultimately the on-court performance, especially defensively, for the 66-16 Boston Celtics.

In some ways, the best parallel I can come up with is to Kirk Gibson winning the NL MVP in baseball in 1988, deservedly, despite having somewhat pedestrian stats (.290-25-76), just because his arrival and presence so singlehandedly transformed the mentality of the L.A. Dodgers.

That said, for being a candidate based on winning, defense, and intangibles, KG's stats are actually better than they look. What makes the raw numbers deceptive is that he played just 32.8 minutes/game. I do think that MPG matters, and normally I might deduct some points, but considering that KG's reduced minutes were due to the fact that Boston was clobbering people, it's hard for me to penalize him.

I don't believe that PER is an end-all and be-all measure of player performance, in large part because it doesn't measure defense accurately. I *do* believe that PER is an excellent metric for what it actually is: a measure of a player's complete box score stats in a single number.

And it's worth noting that KG's 25.30 PER placed him fourth, behind LeBron and CP3, but ahead of Kobe.

There are a couple fair arguments against KG which I acknowledge:

1. Clutch offense: Really interesting numbers on clutch and super-clutch offense from that Bill Simmons unearthed show that LeBron, Kobe and CP3 were all staggering good offensive players in clutch situations, while KG was way down the list.

While I do believe there is such a thing as clutch defense, I do concede that the other contenders are at an advantage here.

2. Games played: KG played just 71 games, due mainly to his torn abdominal muscle in the middle of the season, while CP3 played 80 and Kobe went the full 82, despite the bad finger.

Also, the Celtics did have a 9-2 record when KG was out, but I don't put much stock in that, as I think his imprint affected the team even in his absence, and many of the nine wins came against bottom-feeder teams.

I also don't think that the brilliant defensive work done by Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau should shift credit away from KG any more than I think CP3's case should be discounted for working with the Coach of the Year or that Kobe's should for having the greatest coach in pro basketball history on his sideline.

As much as I believe there are four worthy contenders, I have no doubts that Kevin Garnett deserves to be the 2007-08 NBA MVP.

56-26, 80/37.6, 21.1/4.0/11.6, .488/.369/.851, 28.39 PER

At just 22 years of age, CP3 has delivered a season that is nothing short of one of the greatest ever by a point guard, wresting the assist crown away after a three-year run by Steve Nash. His 28.39 PER ranks second only to LeBron, though it is possibly a little inflated by his staggering 2.71 steals per game, which also led the league and may overrate his defensive prowess as a whole.

Still, the dude is an intense competitor who fueled a 17-game turnaround to an improbable no. 2 seed in the West, and as the link above showed, he was a devastating force in clutch situations. And oh yeah, he just may have saved basketball in New Orleans.

Beyond that, CP3 has possibly become my favorite player to watch. I love how he commands the game up and down the middle of the floor, is virtually impossible to keep out of the lane, finds the most gorgeously disciplined and pinpointed alley-oops from all angles, and then also pulls up and knocks down a big 3 at the most improbable times.

One main argument against a Paul candidacy is the thought that, hey if this guy is such an all-time great and a potential MVP, how come he seems to always get outplayed head-to-head by his draft class rival, Deron Williams. It is an odd thing.

57-25, 82/38.9, 28.3/6.3/5.4, .459/.361/.840, 24.31 PER

There are so many strange factors in what appears will be the first MVP campaign of one of the game's great superstars.

No matter how much voters want to deny it, there is undeniably a "lifetime achievement" award element to MVP votes for Kobe. We here at TPA never vote that way, b/c we think it's tended to lead to some of the dumbest MVP votes ever (see: Malone, Karl, 1997), and besides, as we said at the top, we voted for Kobe in 2005-06; our conscience is clear.

This whole concept of analysts conveying their shock as they ask "How is it possible that Kobe has never won the MVP?!" is just kind of ridiculous. He's never won because, other than 2005-06, he's never deserved it, period. Look back season-by-season. He's either been on contending teams where Shaq was the dominant player, or teams that couldn't get out of the first round.

Another crock to me is that Kobe is all of a sudden "making his teammates better" like he's never done before. This is one of those times where that phrase is really being thrown around in a meaningless fashion.

The championship-era Lakers played great team basketball, Kobe included. Role players like Horry and Shaw and Fisher knocked down big shots b/c Kobe and Shaq gave them the opportunity to hit big shots, drawing the defense to set up open looks and then being unselfish and trusting enough to make the big pass. Kobe averaged 6.1 assists, for example, in his tour de force 2001 playoffs run (29.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg too).

The reason that the Lakers have improved so much this season is not that Kobe Bryant is all of a sudden making his teammates better, it's that he got much better teammates!

The most notable statistic in the improvement of the 2007-08 Lakers is that they are 22-4 in games that Pau Gasol has finished.

It's not that Kobe has taken his game to another level - he's always been this great. It's that the Lakers exchanged Kwame Brown and Smush Parker for Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, and lots of their young players have gotten a whole lot better.

But geez, in some ways Pau has made Kobe look better as much as Kobe's made Pau look better, just because they've brought more W's into each other's lives b/c they're damn good players.

As far as other factors, I take points off for the soap opera of the early-season turmoil, back when Kobe's relationship with the Lakers seemed to be irrevocably broken.

I give Kobe credit for picking up his defense this season. Indeed, one of the underrated factors in L.A.'s improvements has been that they are 6th in defensive efficiency after finishing 24th last season.

And he's been huge in the clutch, as always, although his overall box score stats were less impressive than the other top contenders', as Kobe ranked just 8th in PER.

We had LeBron above Kobe for much of the season, but Kobe gets the narrow edge in part b/c L.A.'s record broke away at the end, and also in part due to the fact that Kobe played through his injury while LeBron sat, and the results of both of those decisions were reflected in the standings. But I could have gone either way on this one.

Don't get me wrong: although I tried to disprove a lot of arguments for Kobe as MVP above, I still believe that Kobe has had an MVP-caliber season, even though he wouldn't get my vote. Fortunately for him, I don't get a vote, so expect a pregame Staples Center ceremony sometime in the next few weeks.

45-37, 75/40.4, 30.0/7.9/7.2, .484/.315/.712, 29.23 PER

Pretty much the whole story here is in those numbers above. 30-8-7, the PER leader, awesome in the clutch - I can't believe I have him in 4th. A staggeringly outstanding season for anyone, much less a 23-year-old.

The crazy thing to me is that LeBron averages 30 points a game with tons of room for growth. I'll never understand why Cleveland doesn't play an all-out fast-breaking style with him b/c I think LeBron is as physically unstoppable in the open floor as Shaq was in the low post in his prime, and that is pretty close to the highest offensive praise I can give to a basketball player. Speaking of which, I think LeBron would be devastating if he ever developed a consistent low-post game, and cut his 3 attempts in half to spend more time on the block.

I can't believe I have this guy 4th.

Certainly, he is penalized by the injuries and subpar play of his teammates, and also his injury relative to Kobe's, as described above.

Still, I can't believe I have this guy 4th.

52-30, 82/37.7, 20.7/14.2/1.3, .599/.000/.590, 22.98 PER

56-26, 78/34.0, 19.3/11.3/2.8, .497/.000/.730, 24.41 PER

55-27, 79/33.9, 25.2/9.1/1.5, .590/.161/.805, 27.61 PER

It was really a flip of the coin among these three dominant big men. Stoudemire was spectacular down the stretch, averaging 28.5 ppg after the All-Star break, and was clearly the best offensive player of this trio, but he was also easily the worst defender of the three, which moved him down for me.

I guess I gave it to D12 narrowly because it wasn't clear that Timmy was the MVP of his own team over Manu. Though I never, ever, ever underestimate the Big Fundamental this time of year.

51-31, 77/36.0, 23.6/8.6/3.5, .479/.359/.879, 24.66 PER

Also came on like gangbusters down the stretch, averaging 25.5 ppg after the break, as his shooting numbers jumped from .469 FG and .291 3PT pre-break to .501 FG and .481 3PT post-break. We were opposed to the Kidd trade, but we can't deny that it's been a boon for Dirk.

Also gets credit for missing just 5 games with that nasty-looking injury - Dallas might not be alive today if he hadn't come back so soon.

56-26, 74/31.1, 19.5/4.8/4.5, .460/.401/.860, 24.34 PER

Simmons pointed this out in his column today, but it's worth repeating - let's re-link the clutch and super-clutch stats from above.

Manu was not only either the 3rd or 4th best clutch scorer (along with Dirk, behind LeBron/Kobe), but he was also one of the top assist men and top steal men in the clutch. And he not only shot 57% FG and 93% FT in the clutch, but he was 62% FG/90% FT in super-clutch situations.

I don't think the guy gets nearly enough credit for the fact that he accepts a role of a sixth man who plays ~30 mpg, which cuts down his numbers and ridiculously keeps him off of All-Star teams, even though he is one of the best players in the league.

55-27, 81/34.3, 16.9/3.5/11.1, .504/.470/.906, 21.16 PER

We close with the beauty of those shooting stats: an exceedingly rare 50-40-90 man.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'07-08 Reg. Season Awards (Part I)

Howdy, Jay Aych back after a brief hiatus from the bball blogging game. Might be a little rusty so try to bear with me until I get my blogging sea-legs back under me.

We'll begin our regular season awards presentation off by rolling out the Defensive All-Stars and the Rookies. So pull up a chair & hold your applause until all the winners are announced.

We're not a slave to positions when picking our teams, so take that into consideration.


K. Garnett: (DPOY)
Was the main impetus in turning the Celtics into the most dominating defense in the NBA. Has the sway to motivate his teammates to defend that's similar to Jordan's sway. He's like an extra defensive coach on the floor, an extension of Tom Thibodeau. As well-rounded as any defender in the league, never a liability in any situation. No traditional post player gets more steals (1.4 spg).

S. Battier: Probably has usurped Bowen as the NBA's premier perimeter defender. Along with Bowen, no other player is so consistently in place to contest shots on the perimeter. Fights through picks. Anticipates well, which helps him beat his opponent to spots on the floor & leads to charges. His 1.14 bpg places him only behind J. Moon & AK47 for primary perimeter defenders.

B. Bowen: For the second year in a row, the demise of Bruce's defensive prowess has been greatly exaggerated. Still challenges shots as well as any perimeter defender, maybe only Battier is better. Great footwork--choppy feet that he puts down & picks up very quickly, always keeps them moving, sort of like a good running back who takes quick, small strides. Combines this with a balanced defensive stance & veteran tricks-of-the-trade (some dirty tricks thrown in) to excel at 36/37 years old.

M. Camby: More than just a devastating roving shot snuffer--his on-the-ball skills are not too shabby either. Also, handles himself as well as any center when forced to defend on the perimeter, solid pick-n-roll defender. 2nd in the NBA in defensive rebounds, 10.3 per. Big reason Denver's defense was above-average--cleans up a lot of the messes that are created by Melo & Iverson's gambling and general indifference to defense.

T. Duncan: Basically doing the same thing he's been doing for 10 years. Think we effectively summed up Timmy's defensive acumen last year:
"Quietly changes/blocks shots as good as any in the league. Never really swats the ball, always seems to just block shots that are still in the shooter's hand. Has an innate ability of what I like to call poke-blocking the ball then securing the shot in the same sequence."


R. Bell:
Similar to Battier & Bowen, just not quite as long which makes him slightly less effective. Fights thru screens and is usually is great position to challenge shots.

D. Howard: Still needs to focus more on the defensive end, definitely will float occasionally. But simply is a physical force who covers a lot of space, and if there is a missed shot anywhere near him, it's his rebound--11 def. rpg, #1 in NBA.

Kenyon Martin: Moves his feet laterally as well as any big in the league. The multiple injuries/surgeries have not slowed him down too much. Can legitimately still guard many 3s in the league, not phased at all roaming on the perimeter. Alongside Camby & Najera (very active), Kenyon helps somewhat neutralize the issues that accrue from the lax perimeter defense.

T. Prince Like his teammate below, easily could have made room for him on the 1st team. Mentioned this last year--has great recovery ability like a good cornerback. Versatile defender that can handle either wing spot, and can be thrown on point guards for limited minutes to give them different looks.

Rasheed Wallace: Easily could have put him on the 1st team. As well-rounded as any post defender--On-the-ball, help, or P-n-Rs, Sheed is excellent. Alongside Garnett, the best big covering pick-n-rolls. His help & recovery ability is superb. Versatile defender who can handle 4s & 5s, and could handle a fair amount of 3s in a pinch. One minor knock: always has underachieved on the boards, this year no different, 5.6 def. rpg.

Honor Mention: Kobe; R. Brewer; Chandler; Dalembert; Dampier; Ginobili; J. Howard; Kirilenko; Pierce



1) Kevin Durant-(R.O.Y.):
Averaged 20 ppg & was Seattle's #1 scoring option since opening day. His shooting percentages were subpar, but his shot selection has improved as the season progressed. Not rushing his shots as much. Wish the rebounds were higher (4.2 rpg), especially after his gaudy reb. numbers at Texas.

2) Al Horford: Nearly averaged a double-double for the year--10 ppg & 9.6 rpg. Already solid defender, probably the top defensive rookie & holds his ground well. Underrated passer. Offensive skills are still a work in progress--he's a bit mechanical in his moves, but does possess an effective drop-step, something he showcased at Florida.

3) Luis Scola: Definitely has advantage over other candidates because of his age & extensive professional experience. Started off the year a little ragged, but finally fell into a groove mid-season & took hold of the starting 4-spot. 10 ppg & 6.3 rpg in 24 mins, not to mention he brought over his usual high shooting percentage from Europe (51%). Loves working in pick-n-rolls with T-Mac or Alston-- looking to set the high screen at all times. Gets a lot of his offense off the roll--can hit the 15-footer & is crafty with footwork--uses spin moves well to create separation from longer defender. Runs the floor hard, just like he does on Team Argentina.

4) Jamario Moon: Sort of a super-senior rookie like Scola (Moon is 27). Adds a much needed jolt of athleticism on the wings of the Raps & loves to work along the baseline. Nice all-around performer, whose quickness leads to steals & blocks (Only AK47 is better shot-blocker for perimeter player). Great rebounder at the SF spot.

5) Al Thornton: Came on strong as the season wore on, has been one of the hottest rooks since the All-Star break. His 12.7 ppg 2nd only to Durant for rookies. Has had a handful of 20-10 nights in the last few weeks.

Honor Mention: Thaddeus Young; J. Navarro; Jeff Green; M. Conley; R. Stuckey; C. Landry; Y. Jianlian

Monday, April 14, 2008

NW Hoops Weekend: PDX Doubleheader

It was a big NW hoops weekend for The Painted Area. Earlier, we offered sights and sounds from what might have been the last Sonics game in Seattle. We also attended a hoops doubleheader in Portland on Saturday - here's that report.

First, we went to the Nike Hoop Summit, which featured several of the top-rated U.S. high-schoolers against a select team of international players from around the world. It was fun to watch, especially because it seemed to be played with more of the intensity of a real game than the exhibition craziness which usually takes over the McDonald's game. Some thoughts:

- Demar Derozan, an L.A. product who's going to USC, was advertised as having Vince Carter-like athleticism and he sure delivered, with highlight-reel dunks and blocks, plus a game-high 17 points, that made him the star of the day in the U.S.'s convincing 98-78 win.

- There were four UCLA recruits in the ballgame and they should fit into Ben Howland's system just fine b/c I thought they really competed hard, esp. forward Drew Gordon, who worked inside for 15 pts and 7 boards (6 off.) on 6-7 FG and guard Jrue Holiday (13 pts, 5 ast, 3 stl), who really got after it with his ball pressure on defense.

- Other celebrated prospects included Greg Monroe (Georgetown), who struggled a bit to 7 pts on 3-9 FG but you could see glimpses of the potential in the big lefty, and Tyreke Evans (undecided), who was uneven with a line of 11 pts, 8 reb, 4 ast, 3 stl, 3 TO, 3-13 FG. Evans made some gorgeous drives and dishes, but also made some careless mistakes and he just looks way off-balance on some of his jumpers.

- Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest) was another guy who caught my eye in making some athletic and heady plays en route to 10 pts, 5 reb, and 3 ast in just 19 minutes.

- I thought 7-1 Alexis Ajinca of France was clearly the most impressive player on the World team on Saturday. He had 13 pts, 9 reb and 3 blocks on 5-9 shooting that included a three-pointer and a couple nice post moves, including a lefty finish. Good agility and presence from the big fella on the defensive end as well.

- The other big man, 7-3 Boban Marjanovic of Serbia, showed a very nice touch at the line (4-4 FT) and good hands, but he was a bit of a plodder. Chad Ford didn't refer to him as looking "kind of like the next Pavel Podkolzine" for nothin'.

- Serge Ibaka (Congo) was erratic - the glimpses of his supreme athleticism were offset by instances of poor fundamental play and decisions.

- Samardo Samuels played on the World team b/c he is of Jamaican heritage, though he was a top high school player in the U.S. and will attend Louisville. He struggled on Saturday with 10 pts on just 3-12 shooting.

In the evening, we attended the Blazers-Mavericks game. After Dallas clinched a playoff spot on Thursday, we were expecting this game to be a fairly dead affair, since it was somewhat meaningless.

Man, no one told this to the Blazers and the raucous Rose Garden crowd. Dallas fought back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game at 101 on a Dirk jumper with :58 left, but Portland fought 'em off for a 108-105 win.

I was extremely impressed by the fight in the Blazers and the energy of the crowd, given that they weren't really playing for anything. You can just feel that the fans sense something special is building, and geez, that they're just thrilled to have a team they can rally around again. Whew, quite a full weekend of compelling hoops all around for the TPA.

Also see: NW Hoops Weekend: Maybe the Last Time in Seattle

NW Hoops Weekend: Maybe the Last Time in Seattle

It was a big NW hoops weekend for The Painted Area. On Saturday, we attended a Portland doubleheader.

On Sunday night, I went to the Sonics-Mavericks game at KeyArena, in what I hope was not the last NBA game I'll ever attend in Seattle. Here is what I saw and heard.

First and foremost, I thought one of the headlines of the night was the appearance of Gary Payton at the ballgame. Yes, other team legends like Slick Watts and Downtown Freddy Brown were there and deserve their respect, but they live in the Seattle area. GP, as far as I know, does not spend much time in Seattle these days, so I thought it was an utter show of respect to the fans, and just incredibly cool, that he made a special trip to attend what could be the last game ever in town.

The Glove was already the greatest Sonic of all time, yet he only enhanced his status as a Seattle sports legend tonight with the simple gesture of showing up, which I don't think fans will soon forget.

A friend of mine pointed out that the only thing that would have been cooler was if the Supes had signed Payton, who played 999 games in a Sonics uniform, to play game 1000 and retire officially in one fell swoop.

Given the circumstances, I don't think the game itself could have been scripted any better. The Sonics rallied from down six with 3:00 left, capped off when Kevin Durant hit yet another clutch jumper to put Seattle ahead 96-95 with :41 left. He got another bucket on a breakaway with :14 left.

Then Dallas missed a three and time appeared to run out. However, there had been a foul on the play, so the officials needed to confer to see how much should be put on the clock.

The dead time allowed for the perfect moment for the near-capacity crowd of 16,272 to erupt into a chant of "Save Our Sonics". I captured 30 seconds of it above (apologies for the shaky camerawork!). The Seattle Times reported that it lasted for 90 seconds all told.

I'll note that Durant was waving his arms to encourage the chant as it began, and was quoted as saying, "I almost cried, to be honest with you. It was phenomenal. The whole arena was into it. The ushers were clapping." Watch for yourself above.

Lots of folks were showing love with all manner of gear representing 41 years of SuperSonics basketball. I captured a couple homages to the 1979 NBA Champs (RIP DJ), and I'm kicking myself that I didn't get a similar photo of one of the many KEMP 40 jerseys in the house.

In lieu of my lapse, please enjoy Shawn Kemp over Alton Lister one more time, above.

And then there was... not so much love. Major hat tip to this guy for incorporating Wally's Folly with the exceptional use of the MCILVAINE 22.

These guys took the crown, in my eyes, for the most inspired get-up of the night.

The SCREW CLAY T-shirts were worn by several fans in the building, in addition to the many sporting Save Our Sonics tees.

That said, if I had to create my Power Rankings of the biggest villains in this whole sordid affair, Howard Schultz would be a clear No. 1. It has become clear over the last several weeks and months, with the emergence of the Ballmer-Stanton-Sinegal-Griffin group as well as rumblings from former minority members of the Schultz ownership group, that Howard Schultz did not have to sell to a group from outside the area. There were plenty of potential local owners who were willing to actually work toward an arena solution rather than just petulantly pick up their toys and go home when their demands were not met.

I think that this was the single most-decisive act in leading to the current predicament, decidedly more egregious than anything that even Clay Bennett and David Stern have done.

Maybe it's an empty, futile gesture, but I think that any NBA fan worth his or her salt should stop patronizing Starbucks posthaste. I doubt it will make a dent in the bottom line, but it's the right thing to do, and it's an act in which NBA fans around the world can participate. Their coffee's overrated, anyway. They burn their beans.

I thought that this sign, which was the work of the good folks from Save Our Sonics, was important as well. The people referred to are Governor Christine Gregoire and State Speaker Frank Chopp, who have contributed absolutely zero productive action toward finding a solution to this whole situation, even when presented with the eminently fair solution offered up by the Ballmer-Stanton-Sinegal-Griffin group -- which received words of tacit support even from the likes of City Councilman Nick Licata and activist Chris Van Dyk, who have been leaders in voicing virulent opposition to previous arena proposals.

I was frankly surprised that this sign was not confiscated, and was even allowed to be hung from the back of the lower bowl for the second half, largely without disruption.

One last look at the team's retired jerseys. Sadly, if things continue on their current course, there will be no PAYTON 20 or KEMP 40 or an extra microphone for the great Kevin CALABRO to join them.

And finally, just because, Slick Watts. Good night from Seattle.

Also see: NW Hoops Weekend: PDX Doubleheader (Nike Hoop Summit + Blazers-Mavs)

Friday, April 11, 2008

MLB's Version of the Pistons-Pacers Brawl

A few weeks ago on Yahoo!'s Ball Don't Lie blog, Kelly Dwyer authored a post called "Whaddayouthink: The NHL's version of the Pistons-Pacers brawl", which looked back at a 1979 NHL fight in which several Boston Bruins ended up going into the crowd in Madison Square Garden, in a scene reminiscent of the ugliness at The Palace in 2004. Kelly wondered why we didn't hear much, if anything, about such a similar incident in the wake of the Artest fight, which was often referred to as an unprecedented event.

I've had this post topic in the back of my head for quite a while. Never seemed like the right time to re-visit The Malice at The Palace, but I do still think this is an important topic - that fight was a bodyblow to the NBA's public perception, the effects of which still linger to this day - so since KD referenced an NHL comparison, let me reference a more recent MLB one.

I must say that I was initially somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the media outrage in the aftermath of the Artest fight. When I first saw the "highlights", my first thought was, "Oh, it's like when the Dodgers went into the stands at Wrigley Field," and I thought the media/public response would be similar.

Do you remember that one? On May 16, 2000, a fan at Wrigley Field hit Chad Kreuter of the L.A. Dodgers on the head as he stole Kreuter's hat. From there, Kreuter and many other Dodgers players and coaches went into the stands and a full-scale brawl ensued:

It was an ugly incident, blame was laid on a combination of the players, the fans and Wrigley Field security - though it seemed like the primary focus was on unruly fan behavior. After The Palace fight, the primary focus was on out-of-control NBA players.

The original MLB discipline meted out called for 16 players to be suspended for a total of 60 games, and three coaches suspended for 24 total games. Upon appeal, 12 of the 19 suspensions were overturned. Four players ended up serving suspensions totaling 24 games, and two coaches served suspensions totaling 16 games. Kreuter's eight-game suspension was the longest of any player.

In The Palace fight, the original discipline called for nine players to be suspended for a total of 143 games. Jermaine O'Neal's suspension was cut from 25 games to 15 upon appeal, while Artest's season-long suspension was extended by 13 playoff games, so nine players ended up serving 146 total games of suspensions. Artest's 86-game suspension was the longest of any player.

Here are the comparisons of the suspensions handed out:
Chad Kreuter - 8
Rick Dempsey (coach) - 8
John Shelby (coach) - 8
Carlos Perez - 5
Gary Sheffield - 5
F.P. Santangelo - 5
Mike Fetters - 1

Ron Artest - 86
Stephen Jackson - 30
Jermaine O'Neal - 15
Ben Wallace - 6
Anthony Johnson - 5
Reggie Miller - 1
Chauncey Billups - 1
Elden Campbell - 1
Derrick Coleman - 1

I realize that this is a bit of a race to the gallows - as KD said in his post, "I'm not calling either of these two rather nasty displays passable, acceptable and anything less that disturbing" and the same sentiment applies here.

However, while I would say that, if we're talking about gradations of deplorable, I do think that The Palace fight was an uglier incident, the events were still similar enough that I've never understood the wide disparity in penalties. Jermaine O'Neal was suspended for twice as many games for punching a fan who had come onto the court than Kreuter was for going into the stands. And that's with the NBA season being half as long as MLB's.

Most notably, outrage over the Wrigley fight persisted through a few news cycles and then the incident became largely forgotten over time, as it is today, with essentially zero negative lasting impact on the perception of MLB or its players.

Meanwhile, The Palace fight was and is a landmark NBA event which deeply impacted the public perception of the league and is used as Exhibit A by those who wish to argue that NBA is unworthy of attention because all of its players are thugs.

Recently, we referred to a Harris Interactive survey from February which asked this question to a couple thousand American adults:

"If you had to choose, which ONE of these sports would you say is your favorite?"

19 different sports were offered as choices. This was the 13th time Harris has conducted this survey since 1985.

Unsurprisingly, pro football has been no. 1 every time, and has only gotten stronger over the years. It has led baseball, which has been no. 2 in each survey, by an average of 14 points. The gap between the two has widened from 24-23 in 1985 to 30-15 this year.

Here is where pro basketball has stood in each survey (yr - % - rank):
    1985: 6 (4T)
    1989: 7 (4)
    1992: 8 (3T)
    1994: 11 (3)
    1997: 13 (3)
    1998: 13 (3)
    2002: 11 (3)
    2003: 10 (3)
    2004: 7 (4T)
    2005: 4 (7T)
    2006: 7 (5)
    2008: 4 (6T)
Considering it's such a simple question, this is hardly a definitive anything, though I do think it is roughly indicative of how the American public perception of the NBA has evolved over the last two decades.

Why has the answer "pro basketball" dwindled from its high-water mark in the late 90s to its depths today? I believe there are three overarching reasons which have been most responsible:

1. The end of the Jordan era, which took things to artificially high levels.
2. The switch from NBC to ABC/ESPN in 2002-03, which led to many fewer games shown on network television and made the playoff schedule much more complicated to follow.
3. Perception of player behavior, influenced in most devastating fashion by two incidents - Sprewell v Carlesimo and the Pistons-Pacers brawl.

I'll never understand how two relatively similar events can elicit such widely disparate reactions, but hey, life ain't fair. MLB has certainly taken devastating hits in perception during the steroid era, while the NFL has gotten a free pass for same.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Playoff Re-Seeding: Bad for Rivalries

With the imbalance between NBA conferences, there seems to be an increasing sentiment to do away with conference breakdowns in the postseason and just seed the entire playoff pool 1-16.

Count me among those very strongly in opposition, and my argument against can be summed up in one word:


Other than a surpassing individual player like a Jordan, there is nothing more compelling in NBA basketball than a fierce rivalry. How do NBA rivalries develop? Almost always through hotly contested playoff series, and usually through multiple postseason meetings over the course of a few years. Certainly, the best ones develop that way.

For example, here are what I consider to be the best NBA rivalries since 1980, with playoff meetings in parentheses:

- Celtics-Sixers, early 80s (4 playoff series - 80, 81, 82, 85)

- Celtics-Lakers, 80s (3 - 84, 85, 87)

- Celtics-Pistons, late 80s (5 - 85, 87, 88, 89, 91)

- Pistons-Bulls, 80s-90s (4 - 88, 89, 90, 91)

- Bulls-Knicks, 90s (5 - 91, 92, 93, 94, 96)

- Lakers-Kings, early 00s (3 - 00, 01, 02)

These are the creme de la creme - in every case, the rivalry was built upon multiple playoff series, and in five out of six cases, the rivalry was within the same conference.

Here's what I have as some of the next tier of NBA rivalries since 1980: Lakers-Sixers (3 - 80, 82, 83), Knicks-Heat (4 - 97, 98, 99, 00), Kings-Mavs (3 - 02, 03, 04), Spurs-Lakers (5 - 99, 01, 02, 03, 04). In all cases multiple playoff series, and in 3 of 4, it's intraconference.

Am I forgetting a particular rivalry that is more dear to you? I'll bet it was based on multiple playoff series, and also that it was likely an intraconference rivalry.

But if you have one big pool of 16, there is a much lower probability that two particular teams will be matched up then if you divide teams into two distinct pools of eight, as it is now. Of course, there's also a much lower probability that teams will meet up multiple times.

And if there's a much lower probability that teams will meet multiple times in the playoffs, then quite simply there is much lower chance that rivalries will form.

I think that any potential gains by shifting to a 1-16 seed format are minimal compared to what would be lost by reducing the chances of developing great NBA rivalries.