Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Scouting Perry Jones, Josh Smith, Terrence Jones

High-school basketball takes center stage on Wednesday, with the McDonald's All-American Game being televised on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, and then the documentary film The Street Stops Here - about legendary coach Bob Hurley, Sr., who may get a well-deserved call to the Hall of Fame on Monday - airing on PBS at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

With that in mind, I offer my scouting reports for the three McDonald's All-Americans whom I saw live in person this season - Perry Jones, Joshua Smith and Terrence Jones - all guys we may soon be watching in the League.

I'll also once again be covering the upcoming Nike Hoop Summit, which takes place on April 10 in Portland, where I got my first glimpse of John Wall last year, and which looks to have an outstanding roster of future NBA players lined up once again this year.

PERRY JONES, Duncanville, TX/Baylor (6-11, 225)
Class of 2010 rankings: Scout - 4, Rivals - 6, ESPN - 9

Perry Jones is a fascinating, somewhat enigmatic prospect who is currently listed as the no. 2 overall pick in the Draft Express 2011 Mock Draft - a player with both stunning gifts and significant question marks surrounding his game.

I was in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex during the holiday season, and made the trek down to suburban Duncanville to see Jones in action.

The clear comparison which jumped out at me was that Jones seemed like a 6-11 Tracy McGrady, not just in terms of pros and cons, but also physical resemblance in body type - Jones has great length and he can sky, and his shooting form is strikingly similar to T-Mac's.

The WOW play of the night when I was in Duncanville was a full-court fast break on which Jones went behind his back to elude one defender in the backcourt, dropped a wicked crossover to beat another, and then displayed great court vision in whipping a one-handed bounce pass to a teammate for an assist.

We remind you: Perry Jones is 6-11.

Another time that Jones led the break, he dropped a nice lefty bounce pass to a teammate, again showing the ability to both make the correct decision and to execute it.

Jones displayed a good shooting touch the night I was in town, hitting on pull-up jumpers on the perimeter and turnaround J's in the post. He also showed the ability to make dribble moves in the half-court O, and generally offered a good mix of inside/outside play.

Defensively, Duncanville utilized a clever zone in which Jones roamed in and out. Basically, Jones' four teammates played a box, and the zone morphed from a 1-2-2 to a 2-1-2 to a 2-3 based on where Jones went.

Jones was disruptive on the perimeter at times as a trapping defender, but was probably pulled away from the basket too often. He also flailed for blocks too often, leaving himself out of position to rebound. In general, Jones was not an active presence on the boards, which was a disappointment because he has the physical tools to clear the glass like a young KG.

That's the rub with Jones - when I compare him to McGrady, I mean for both good and ill. At times, Jones had a laconic demeanor and seemed to be disinterested at both ends of the floor. His activity level slipped as the game wore on, especially on D, as he wasn't even challenging shots.

Perhaps it was because the game I attended was a blowout, but a recurring lack of assertiveness seems to be a consistent criticism of Perry Jones' game. described his season like so:
    Consistency has always been tough to bottle for Jones and his senior season was no exception. He has the ability to look like a future No. 1 NBA Draft pick one night (27 points, 17 rebounds against Irving MacArthur on Jan. 2) and completely disappear and be a non-factor the next (three points against Dallas Carter Dec. 28). Jones averaged 13.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, leading the Panthers to a 21-13 record. He was held to single digits in the scoring column 10 times, which is hard to believe given his talent but also has something to do with a cold-shooting Duncanville squad that gave opponents the opportunity to collapse on the big man.
Unfortunately, I missed the nationally televised matchup of Jones against LeBryan Nash, a top prospect in the class of 2011 who is also from Dallas. By all accounts, the powerful 6-7, 210 Nash handily won the matchup, with a 26-8 performance in a 67-55 win as Jones scored just 12 points.

In some ways, Perry Jones' situation reminds me of that of Marvin Williams when he entered the draft, in that Jones could use more seasoning as an alpha dog with the responsibility of carrying a team.

When I saw Williams in high school in the Seattle area, he played for a small-town team which was pathetically coached and finished about .500 - Williams never felt the pressure of carrying a team to the state playoffs in high school, and then spent just one year at North Carolina as a sixth man for a national champion. I've always felt Williams would have been better served to spend an extra year at Carolina as the go-to guy, especially because he didn't get that opportunity in high school, either.

Of course, Williams did get that opportunity in summer-league ball, where he made his name by starring for a Seattle team which advanced deep into a major tournament. And that's exactly how Jones made his rise - last summer on the AAU circuit. Duncanville has been a national power in basketball in recent years, and Jones played merely a supporting role right up through his junior year.

I almost always believe that players should enter the draft if they are projected as high first-round picks, but Jones is a rare case, like Williams, where I wonder if he might be well-served with an extra year of seasoning in carrying the responsibility as The Man. We'll see what happens.

In any event, Perry Jones should fit in beautifully with the athletic style of play employed by Scott Drew at Baylor. In our mind, he's also the most interesting player to watch at the McDonald's game. He possibly has more potential and physical ability than any player in the class of 2010, but he is still quite far from fully realizing that potential. I wouldn't be surprised to see Jones eventually go no. 2 in the draft, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him slip deeper into the lottery. That, as they say, is why they play the games.

JOSHUA SMITH, Covington, WA/UCLA (6-10, 280)
Class of 2010 rankings: Scout - 13, Rivals - 19, ESPN - 11

After watching massive center Joshua Smith several times, the players to whom I'd compare him - and I swear I'm not trying to be funny here - are Oliver Miller at his best and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar circa 1987. Don't get me wrong, these comparisons are meant in part to speak to the weaknesses in Smith's game. But both of those players were good: Miller at his best was a valuable 18 PER player for the 56-win '93-94 Suns, and Kareem also had an 18 PER as a 39-year-old starter for the champion Lakers.

But an 18 PER is sub-All-Star-level, and it speaks to the relative disappointment in Smith's development - he's fallen from a Top 5 perch in previous class-of-2010 rankings as he's continued to struggle with his weight.

As with Jones, though, Smith is an enigma more than anything - he has lots of pros balancing his cons, and his career could go in many different directions. It wouldn't surprise me if he became a star, and it wouldn't surprise me if he ultimately ate his way out of the league.

Smith has had an unorthodox senior year. First, he decided to put on the football pads and become a massive lineman for a season. Then, he suffered a partially torn patella tendon in December which kept him out of action for several weeks.

Really, again, because of all the weight he's carrying, Smith reminded me of Oliver Miller at his best: great hands and a soft shooting touch, an unselfish and gifted passer from the high or low post, surprisingly light on his feet for such a large frame, with outstanding footwork.

On the other hand, Smith is not active on D (though he has good timing as a shot-blocker) or the boards - he didn't rebound outside his area in games I saw. And then, he just appears to be flat out of shape. Smith runs the court sporadically. That's where the Kareem '87 comparisons come into play. Lots of times, I saw Smith clear the defensive board, throw an outlet, and then slowly trail the break while his teammates waited for him to methodically set up on the low block, where he was routinely devastating and unguardable on the high-school level.

How bad does he want to get into, and stay in, shape? That's the question with Joshua Smith. Does he want Oliver Miller's career, or does he want something more? It's up to him. He has a rare combination of size and skill.

As a postscript, Smith's Kentwood H.S. team struggled during his injury absence and entered the state tournament with just a 16-10 record. But then, the big fella absolutely put Kentwood on his back and impressively carried them to a state championship. He averaged 23 points and 15 rebounds a game at state, and also led the tournament with 17 total assists (in four games).

Also, from my observations, Smith seems to be a bright, articulate kid who is well-liked by his teammates. I love this Seattle Times photo from the aftermath of the state championship, with the big mountain of a young man surrounded by his jubilant teammates:

TERRENCE JONES, Portland, OR/Undecided (6-9, 230)
Class of 2010 rankings: Scout - 20, Rivals - 13, ESPN - 13

Terrence Jones is a somewhat unorthodox but undeniably effective player, as he led his Jefferson H.S. team to three consecutive Oregon state championships, the first time that's ever been done at the 5A or 6A levels in the state.

When I saw Jones, he didn't appear to play with a tremendous amount of effort, yet at the end of the game, he had 22 points, 9 rebounds, 8 blocks, and Jefferson had handed nationally-ranked Federal Way (WA) its first loss of the season.

My notes included phrases like "low motor", "doesn't go after boards hard", "low effort", "doesn't work hard on D", and "didn't seem to play hard, but still big win." Still, somehow, I like Jones as a player.

Most notably, Jones uses his exceptional length to his advantage. While he didn't seem to work hard on D, he claimed 8 blocks because he was able get after shots even while playing several feet off his man. He was also imposing with his wings spread out on the press.

On offense, Jones has the versatility to play on the perimeter as something of a point forward. He has a nice lefty shooting stroke, and very good court vision/unselfishness, though he made several bad decisions - "a lot of A, a lot of TO" is what I had in my notes, though I didn't see any numbers on those categories.

While Jones had the ability to get to the basket on the drive, he did not strike me as an exceptional finisher. It may seem strange, but it seems like Jones is more crafty with his length than he is an explosive athlete.

It's hard to describe. Take a look at this clip - it's a beautiful move and an impressive dunk, somewhat of a 360, but it seems like it's all arms rather than an explosion. Might be nit-picking for a guy with three straight high-school state titles, but that extra oomph off the floor can be what separates the men from the boys in the League:

Jones is undecided and is said to be considering Kentucky, Washington, Oregon, UCLA and Oklahoma.

We look forward to getting another look at these three players, as well as the rest of the best of the class of 2010, in the McDonald's All-American Game and the Nike Hoop Summit. Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 19, 2010

U.S. Reed and the 1981 Birth of March Madness

The U.S. Reed half-court buzzer-beater from the 1981 NCAA Tournament has been getting a little bit of pub recently, as it was the no. 3 seed in the Buzzer Beater Bracket featured recently on the SportsNation program on ESPN.

The memories of the Reed shot have made me harken back to one of the underrated days in establishing the NCAA Tournament as the Great American Sporting Event: Saturday, March 14, 1981.

The 1979 Magic-Bird championship game rightly deserves a lot of credit for lifting college basketball to new heights, after the UCLA dynasty laid the groundwork.

Certainly, a string of remarkable Final Four games in the 1980s, as well the explosion of college basketball of cable television - particularly ESPN carrying wall-to-wall coverage of the Tournament for the first time - solidified the NCAA Tournament as the marquee event it is today.

But it was that one less famous Saturday - March 14, 1981 - which offered the first true glimpse of the March Madness that we know and love in this first weekend, with a bunch of wildly exciting finishes and upsets happening all over the country, laying the groundwork for tourney's explosion in the '80s - and fun-filled days like yesterday.

In 1981, the Tournament was still on NBC, and that year was one of the first instances in which the early rounds were broadcast nationally, and in which fans were shuttled around to different games. I know it may sound crazy, but consider that there wasn't even a Bracket Selection Show in those Dark Ages. During an NBC game broadcast, play-by-play man Dick Enberg only had time to announce a few no. 1 seeds before signing off the air, and fans had to wait until the following day's newspaper to see the whole field.

With Bryant Gumbel at the helm in the studio, three afternoon games headed down to the wire for almost simultaneous upset finishes.

First, Reed unleashed his half-court shocker which allowed Arkansas to knock off the defending-champion Louisville Cardinals:

Then, the NBC audience was sent out to the West Regional, as 8-seed Kansas State challenged the no. 2 team in the country, 1-seed Oregon State. Rolando Blackman launched this corner jumper which sank the Beavers:

Ro's shot was immortalized on the following week's SI cover:

Finally, Gumbel sent NBC viewers back to the Mideast Regional for the biggest shocker of them all, as 9-seed St. Joseph's, coached by Jimmy Lynam, challenged the no. 1 team in the nation, DePaul, with Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. Ahead 48-47, DePaul's Skip Dillard, an outstanding free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one, and St. Joe's raced down for a frantic go-ahead bucket at the buzzer:

1-2-3. As of 1981, there had never been anything like it for American TV viewers, and even with all the buzzer-beaters we've seen in the past 30 years, I don't know that there's been anything like it since. Such a concentration of remarkable buzzer-beaters and upsets in such a short time period.

It's no coincidence that the term "March Madness" is reported to have been used for the first time in the following year, 1982, by Brent Musburger, in CBS's first year with the Tournament.

Also see: There's a nice post called "The Afternoon When All Hell Broke Loose" which helped jog my memory for this post.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thoughts on Magic & Larry, Book and Film Versions

I have now consumed the recent Magic Johnson & Larry Bird media which is essentially complementary: the book (written with Jackie MacMullan), When The Game Was Ours, and the HBO documentary film, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.

The main thing I would say is that sometimes subject matter trumps all else. The saga of Magic & Bird is such bankable material that I'm not fully sure how to evaluate the book and movie as works of art. They were both among the most satisfying pieces of nostalgia I can remember. The book was such an enjoyable walk down memory lane that I was literally humming the NBA on CBS theme song in my head as I read at times.

[Note: NBC/Tesh's Roundball Rock will always be an NBA on CBS ripoff to me:]

With a story that I knew in such deep detail, I was surprised that there was still new footage to see and new nuggets to read - I was surprised that there were still elements of the Magic & Bird story which were revelations to me.

What was especially satisfying was when the film brought visual life to unique elements of the book (even though they were produced independently from one another) with rarely-shown footage. The footage of Magic and Larry playing together in the World Invitational Tournament as college players in the summer of 1978 was downright breathtaking to me. I'd love to watch a show which just features all of the footage of them playing in this tournament! (There wouldn't be that much, as remarkably, they both came off the bench, as U.S. head coach Joe B. Hall favored his Kentucky players.)

Other notable elements from the book that we saw in the film included the (somewhat) hard foul that Bird took on Magic in their first matchup as pros, Magic's failures in the clutch in the 1984 Finals, and the general scene around the Converse commercial filmed at Bird's place in French Lick, Indiana in 1985, which was a turning point in the Hall of Famers' relationship.

In general, it seems like when we see a Magic or Bird highlight reel these days, we get the same iconic moments and b-roll over and over, so it was cool to get some lesser-seen footage of the two, especially from their early days as pros.

And, as the filmmakers provided background for why the NBA had fallen out of favor with the public in the 70s, it was truly shocking, given the modern context, to see multiple fight scenes with overhand punches thrown, or the Maurice Lucas-Darryl Dawkins square-off in the 1977 Finals. The famous Bird vs. Dr. J fight from the '80s was also in there.

At the heart of Magic & Bird: Courtship of Rivals were the words of the two protagonists themselves. With the good ol' days now a generation behind them, both men spoke with candor.


As much as the film hit all of the major notes of the Magic-Bird rivalry, a book can of course delve into much greater detail, so there was definitely much more to learn in When The Game Was Ours. Some of my favorite little tidbits were the following (alert: possible small spoilers ahead, though there is much greater detail in the book):

-- Perhaps the most surprising revelation to me was that Bird took oral steroids intermittently in the 1991-92 season due to his excruciating back pain. He stopped once he committed to the 1992 Olympics team, well in advance of the Barcelona games, but was still sufficiently concerned of lingering traces that he is quoted as saying that drug testing in Barcelona was "the most stressful part of the Olympics."

-- People might forget that Magic was booed in L.A. after being blamed for the firing of coach Paul Westhead in a celebrated incident in the 1981-82 season. The funny thing to me is that Magic was frustrated because Westhead wouldn't let Magic play a running game. Westhead is only the architect of the craziest up-tempo games ever seen in the NBA ('90-91 Nuggets), the NCAA (Loyola Marymount) and even the WNBA (Phoenix Mercury), yet he wouldn't let Magic run (he wanted to pound the ball into Kareem). Unreal.

-- There was a lot of fortune in getting the storied rivalries in both college and the pros, as both players easily could have ended up elsewhere. Bobby Knight had a long shot to pair the players at Indiana, but he alienated Magic on a recruiting visit, and Bird lasted just 24 days at IU as a young Hick from French Lick who was overwhelmed by the big university. Bird had dreams of possibly playing for Kentucky, but coach Joe B. Hall didn't think he could get his shot off in the SEC, and cut off his recruitment of Bird.

In the pros, Magic nearly jumped to the NBA in 1978 after his freshman year, meeting with the Kansas City Kings, but unable to come to contract terms. In 1979, Lakers owner Jerry Buss had to overrule those, including Jerry West, who preferred Sidney Moncrief.

Bird was drafted by the Celtics in 1978 even though he didn't join the league until a year later in 1979, due to an arcane draft rule that no longer exists. The Pacers could have picked the homestate kid, but the franchise was struggling and couldn't afford to wait a year for a player. After Larry said he wasn't coming to the league in '78, Indiana traded the no. 1 overall pick to Portland. After failing in their attempts to recruit Bird to the pros immediately, the Blazers opted for Mychal Thompson, and planned to pick Bird at 7... just after Red Auerbach snagged him at 6. Not quite as bad as Bowie-over-Jordan, but yet another major draft what-coulda-been for Portland.

-- I had no idea how much Magic hung out with (then-new) Lakers owner Jerry Buss when he first arrived in L.A. I find any mention of their joint escapades so entertaining that I think I could read a separate book on the topic. A sample: "Buss brought lots of women with him on their excursions, and he'd dance disco, the waltz, and the tango with them for hours. When he got tired, he'd turn to Johnson and say, 'Earvin, dance with these ladies.'"

-- Other Olympics notes I'd never heard before: Magic's blunt telling of why Isiah was left off the '92 Dream Team was well-covered back in October, as Magic said, "Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him."

But I had never heard the gossip that Barkley dished about the 1996 team. In lamenting how things had changed since Larry, Magic and Michael had set the tone for the Dream Team by checking their egos at the door, Barkley was quoted as saying that 1996 "was one big ego fest. Guys actually boycotted practice because they weren't happy with their playing time. It was ridiculous."

There was also some good stuff about the legendary Dream Team scrimmage in Monte Carlo prior to the Olympics, long rumored to be some of the best basketball ever played. Jordan said in the book that it's "the most fun I've ever had playing basketball." Part of me would desperately love to see that scrimmage, but part of me wonders if it could ever live up to its legend, and might be better left alone as unseen lore.

-- Magic's T-cell counts were so low upon his HIV diagnosis that his doctors gave him a maximum of three years to live. Still jarring to think back to those days when we expected that we were going to watch Magic, in the words of Arsenio Hall in the film, "get skinny and die."

-- In the wake of an All-Star Game attended by 8 zillion people, it's funny to go back to 1982, with David Stern recounting how he had to give away tickets to that year's All-Star Game in New Jersey, even with a matchup of young Magic and young Bird.

-- And finally, with the book ending in the present day, I was highly amused at Magic recounting how shocked he was to see Lamar Odom return to the Lakers hotel a few hours prior to Game 2 of the 2008 Finals with several shopping bags in hand after spending a hot June day around town.

The most interesting omission in the book to me is that Bird still won't address a reported bar fight in 1985 which many have believed caused a finger injury that caused a playoff shooting slump, which may have cost the Celtics a championship. Bird's history of avoiding the subject was covered in the Boston Globe in October. Interestingly, in the book, Bird deeply regrets the 1985 loss, and places much of the blame on Cedric Maxwell for falling out of shape and motivation after signing a new contract in the summer of 1984.

The only real problems I had with When The Game Was Ours were several glaring factual errors, which I found distracting. Among the errors are claims that:

-- The Pistons clinched their 1988 series win over the Celtics in Boston, to chants of "Beat LA". [Um, they clinched in Detroit.]

-- Prior to his first game vs. Michael Jordan in MJ's rookie year (1984-85), Bird is quoted in conversation with Bulls coach Doug Collins, asking what the arena scoring record is. [Collins didn't join the Bulls until 1986-87.]

-- Pat Riley was redeemed in 1985 after a "series of crushing losses to the Celtics." [Other than 1984, I don't when Riley had previously met the Celtics, as either player or coach.]

-- Michael Jordan left North Carolina after his sophomore year. [It was his junior year. Maybe minor, but c'mon, it's Michael Jordan.]

There are more, but they shouldn't take away from the book as a whole. It's a fun, engaging read all the way through, much as the movie is one I could (and probably will) watch over and over again.

I'm not trying to convince you that the Magic & Bird book/movie are Breaks of the Game and Hoop Dreams, but with their bankable, can't miss characters and storylines, they are undeniably essentials for any NBA fan to read and watch.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Boston Hoops Road Trip: Sloan, Celtics and More

I had the pleasure of attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past weekend. The Painted Area was afforded the opportunity to meet several of our colleagues in the TrueHoop Network - including The Blogfather himself, Mr. Henry Abbott - in person for the first time, and also to enjoy a surprisingly glorious weekend of late-winter weather.

With a Celtics game on Sunday night following the conference on Saturday, I turned it into a long hoops weekend. In the spirit of other Painted Area hoops-themed road trips to Portland, Dallas, and Eugene, here's an illustrated report on a basketball weekend in The Hub.


There's been lots of coverage of the events at the Sloan Conference by this point. I like to think that we at the TrueHoop Network did a thorough job of covering what was discussed at various panels, and I thought Dan Shanoff did an excellent job of capturing the feel of the atmosphere at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Saturday.

Many have noted that the marked increase in attendance at this year's conference - both in general and in terms of team personnel - is a signal that the basketball advanced statistics movement has gone irreversibly mainstream. The Sloan Conference was famously labelled "Dorkapalooza" by Bill Simmons, and is broadly considered (sometimes derisively) to be a collection of stat geeks, but I think that that characterization undervalues what this event has become.

After attending on Saturday, I believe Sloan is more than a conference on advanced statistics - a more precise definition would be that it's a conference on New Ideas in Sports.

Certainly, advanced statistics accounts for a significant chunk of the new ideas currently in the basketball vanguard. But I was fascinated by how often the conference was about more than stats, such as when Mark Cuban talked about how advances in psychological testing, and personalized medicine - tailored to the individual athlete - were things that he was anticipating in the next 20 years. The Sloan Conference was really about what's next in sports, about what potential innovations which might give players and franchises and leagues an edge.

It all reminded me about how the godfather of objective analysis in sports, Bill James, bristled at being pigeon-holed as a "stats guy". I have an eclectically brilliant old friend named Tris McCall, who writes on all manner of things (you won't find a better writer on modern music, imo) - a few years ago Tris wrote this about Bill James:
    As a kid in the Eighties, Bill James was good writing: irascible, contrarian, blunt, funny, riled up but logical, freewheeling, exciting. James was a writer to follow places -- if he wanted to go on a tear about presidential politics in the middle of an essay about Chuck Tanner, well, you buckled your seatbelt and went with it. James prefigured Internet writing, and I hear his voice all over the web. Considering the type of guys who've gravitated toward Internet discourse, this isn't surprising -- I'll bet half the webmasters in America had a copy of the Baseball Abstract on their bookshelves as teenagers.

    One of the many great things about James was that he was always writing against dogma. He was (and is) such an irreducibly contrary bastard that he was prone to disagree with you until you agreed with him, and then reverse his position and argue against his original stance. For James, the argument was the process -- kicking against anything set in stone was what he did. It didn't matter whose idea it was (least of all if it was his own), he'd fashion a challenge, and go at it with all the rhetorical fireworks at his disposal. Everything commonly accepted was there to be proved wrong.

    And for years, that's what he did. He took all the stupid-ass sportscasting cliches, all of the conventional baseball wisdom held sacred by the old guard, and he tore it down. Sometimes he tore it down with a statistical challenge. More usually, he tore it down with bluster, wit, and discursive force. James's language was so much funnier and more compelling than that of the old guard that you wanted to believe him. You didn't go check the stats, you didn't wade through his charts and tables. You took his word for it.
As I sat there at Sloan on Saturday, I realized that this was the point. It wasn't about statistics taking over the NBA world, it was about challenging conventional wisdom, challenging basketball dogma.

Now, Tris used the above as an intro (not currently available on his site) for a withering attack on how some baseball execs such as Billy Beane had become too attached to their sabermetric dogma. Maybe we'll get to that point in basketball someday, I don't think we're anywhere close at the moment. There was a nice moment in the Basketball Analytics panel when Celtic executive Mike Zarren, who heads up their statistical analysis, reminded a questioner that a Doc Rivers observation was a piece of data just as much as an advanced statistic was.

Advanced statistics should not trump all other factors dogmatically. But nor should they be denied a seat at the table next to traditional scouting methods.

Zarren also noted at one point that the advanced video tools offered by Synergy Sports were a transformative technology, so thorough that the C's were down to two full-time college scouts.

On a somewhat related note, if I may be self-referential, I'd point to a scouting report of Brandon Jennings that I posted prior to the draft last June.

I feel like that post was entirely in the spirit of the Sloan Conference, yet if you look back, my convictions in favor of Jennings were based almost entirely on old-school scouting observations. In fact, I believed in what I saw so much that I overruled the normally reliable translations of Jennings's Euroleague stats, which projected him to be much worse as a rookie than he's actually performed.

The point was that I was open to the new idea of a player taking the path of going from high school to Europe, and curious to work through the challenge of trying to evaluate a player in a new context. Whereas many NBA execs seemed to be dismissing Jennings out of hand, seemingly without even bothering to determine if he could actually play. The reasoning often cited by execs was that they hadn't had a sufficient chance to see Jennings play.

Any executive who used such reasoning was underestimating how transformative Synergy Sports is, both in terms of how it makes scouting individual players exponentially more efficient (by allowing users to call up a player's possessions, broken down in myriad ways, with just a couple clicks), and in that it reduces the need to see players in person (seeing players live is preferrable, for sure, but not necessary).

Learning and understanding that Synergy Sports is a transformative technology is, to me, an example of exactly what the Sloan Conference is about, as much as any new statistical analysis. If you don't believe it, that's fine, but maybe you'll miss out on a useful player because you feel like you haven't seen a player from, say, Lithuania, enough, when in fact all the data is there to be analyzed.

I guess, in general, I echo what John Schuhmann wrote on this week:
    In his Monday column, David Aldridge quoted a Western Conference executive, who referred to the Sloan conference as "people who haven't won anything, who think they have something to teach us."

    First, it's amazing that the person who said that -- someone who may have a say in investing tens of millions of dollars on players every year -- doesn't want to know everything possible about players.

    Second, it's unclear why anyone in any field would resist an opportunity to learn more, or at least hear a different perspective.

    Third, the NBA analytics community has at least one championship ring in its pocket. Mike Zarren, who was on the basketball analytics panel Saturday, has been with the Celtics for six years and is considered to be one of the leaders in the field.
How can you not be curious about new ideas? That's what mystifies me.

I'm fascinated to learn about topics I'd never even considered before, such as the paper presented at Sloan on The Value of a Blocked Shot in the NBA or Tom Haberstroh's post on Hardwood Paroxysm just yesterday, which ponders whether the concept of a "weighted assist" is a more accurate value of passing production.

Do these concepts definitively change how we evaluate shot blockers and passers? Not necessarily, maybe not at all. But they might. Now it's time to tear down these concepts like Bill James would, and see what's really there - not to dismiss them out of hand because they are new.

How can you not be excited to potentially learn something new which might help give you a better understanding of the game?

Let's leave the last word on the topic to the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Theo Epstein, who hired James to contribute objective analysis to the Sox, and has won a couple World Series rings along the way. Epstein said this in an interview with WBRU Sports last month:
    WBRU Sports: What do you say to that new generation now? What advice do you give them?

    Epstein: Just to be... not to be dogmatic and to be open-minded, to always question oneself and others about what seems to be right, what seems to be the answer, what seems to be the number might not be. And always to really respect tradition and to think deeply about anything new that seems to be insightful and challenge yourself to find a way to actually apply that in a game, but to be open-minded to the other side. The best answers tend to come through some sort of discourse and not through absolutes or ultimatums.
That, folks, is what the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is all about. It's not about stat geeks, it's about being open-minded to new ideas, and always questioning dogma and conventional wisdom in the name of seeking a better way.


On Sunday night, I headed over to the "Garden" for the Celtics-Wizards game which aired nationally on ESPN. Boston won a somewhat bizarre game 86-83, coming back from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit behind Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen for a late win, after playing listlessly for much of the game.

As has happened too frequently in recent days, the Celtics were overwhelmed by the athleticism of the opponent. In this case, it was the Wizards frontline - Andray Blatche (23-9), Al Thornton (24-11) and JaVale McGee (13-5 blocks) - who did the damage before melting down with turnovers and bad decisions at the end.

Couple that edge in athleticism with the most notable stat of the night - Kevin Garnett going without a field goal for the first time since his rookie year - and the question I, sadly, came away asking was: how much does KG have left?

It hurts me to even broach the topic. KG's not only been one of my favorite players in recent years, but he was obviously one of the lions of the 2000s - one of the four players (Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, KG) who stood head and shoulders above the others.

But aging, of course, afflicts every athlete. Yes, Garnett still has the smarts and heart (his headlong dive to gather a loose ball was a key play late) to be a contributor - especially on defense - and yes, his 19.7 PER is still All-Star quality (though he is down to 30 mpg).

That said, his numbers are in deep decline over the last couple years - across the board, his '09-10 production is the worst since his rookie year. And at age 33 with a knee that appears to be gone for good, it's hard to see how the decline gets reversed from here. I dare say that, unless he gets voted in, Garnett's days as an All-Star are over, after playing in 13 ASGs in 14 years.

I'm not here to write KG's career obituary, it's way too early for that. I'm just lamenting that I don't think I'll ever again see the Kevin Garnett I've known and loved - the guy who was seemingly everywhere, doing everything, inside and outside, offense and defense - especially on defense. I freaking loved watching that crazy Hall of Famer play at his peak, no matter the antics. I hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see it.

A few other thoughts and notes on a night at the "Garden":
• The Nate Robinson vs. Earl Boykins matchup, pictured above, was a fan favorite at the end of the second quarter. A guy seated behind me called for Nate to post up Earl.

• In the aftermath of the Sloan Conference, wouldn't you know that there would be all sorts of aberrant numbers. Beyond KG going without an FG, Blatche (5-7) and Thornton (4-6) were deadly from 10-15 feet, hitting 9-13 (.691) combined. The players normally combine for 42% from that range (about 1-2.5 combined), and both players set season highs for makes from that range, as well. (Thank you, Hoopdata, of course.)

Also, after 95%+ of Sloan attendees raised their hands to say they supported giving a foul when up 3 late in a game, Boston chose not to, and Thornton ended up with a tough but decent long look to tie which bounced away at the end.

JaVale McGee, who really dominated the interior on defense with his shot-blocking presence, somehow managed to garner 5 blocks and 0 defensive rebounds.

• As far as the general "Garden" experience, I understand that there's a baseline for what's expected in the modern era, I just wish the Celtics could weave a classic touch here or there, such as an organ during game play, as the Lakers have retained.

The crowd was loudest at the T-shirt cannons for much of the night, as the home side was giving them absolutely nothing to cheer for the most part, but then they blew the roof off the joint as the late comeback crested with Allen's decisive threes.

I was amazed at how most of the time-outs consisted of just showing people dancing on the videoboard, and the fans couldn't seem to get enough of it, in general. Sadly, because the Celtics didn't wrap up the game until the final seconds, we didn't get any of the 21st-century victory cigar, Gino.

Also, after attending an Olympic hockey game in Vancouver, I hypothesized that there is essentially no overlap between music played at NBA and NHL games. After a trip to the "Garden", I stand corrected. They RAWK the house, and I'll take you down to Paradise City to prove it.

• Finally, if I may shamelessly rip off Ball Don't Lie's Phenomenal Swag, I just want to point out the man who was the clear merchandising star at the knock-off souvenir stands outside the "Garden":


I should also note that I visited what's called the New England Sports Museum, which was essentially a rip-off of $10. The "museum" consisted mainly of going up to the suite levels of the "Garden" and looking at the photos on the wall. Here's a general look:

Yes, there were occasional artifacts such as the old Boston Garden hockey penalty box, or a piece of the old parquet floor, or a model of the old (i.e. real) Garden:

But for the most part, there were no exhibits, per se, and it was a far cry from, for example, the exhibits in the concourses around Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

All told, you'll be better off just sticking to the main public landmark of Boston basketball, available 24 hours a day in Quincy Market, the Red Auerbach statue:

Also of note, right next to Red, is a plaque honoring Larry Bird, featuring a pair of his Converse All-Stars. They really should be Weapons, I know:

And, with that, this kid bids The Hub adieu after a memorable and varied hoops weekend.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: "What Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball" Panel Report

Hello from Boston, where The Painted Area is pitching in to the TrueHoop Network’s coverage of the 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with our thoughts on the show-stopper panel on the day: What Geeks Don’t Get: The Limits of Moneyball. Over 1000 people packed into the main conference room to see this star-studded cast:

Michael Lewis (Moderator): Author of Moneyball and The Blind Side
Daryl Morey: General Manager of the Houston Rockets, and the conference’s co-chair
Mark Cuban: Owner of the Dallas Mavericks
Bill Simmons: uber-columnist and author of The Book of Basketball
Jonathan Kraft: President of The Kraft Group (holdings include the New England Patriots and the New England Revolution)
Bill Polian: President of the Indianapolis Colts

Here's a running report of topics discussed:
-- Lewis started the panel by noting that he was blown away by the fact that the conference was more than a roomful of geeks, and he wanted to go against the grain and gather ideas about the limits of Moneyball, because he couldn’t think of any himself.

-- Lewis began the questioning by asking Simmons what bothers him the most about the statistical revolution. After congratulating the crowd for setting a record for “most dudes in a conference room”, Simmons noted that the biggest issue and advancement he’d like to see in the next decade is for the creators and those in the vanguard of the statistical revolution to make numbers more relatable to the common fan.

Cuban chimed in by joking that what bothered him most was not knowing what Morey and all 30 teams were doing. He noted that he wished NBA tracked stats like deflections, for example, so that things didn’t have to be gathered on the team level, where teams had to spend a lot of time and money to collect data on their own.

-- From a football perspective, Polian noted that there are two distinct areas where numbers analytics are needed: personnel/salary cap management and on-field tactics. He praised Lewis for nailing a key element across sports in Moneyball: finding ways to unearth undervalued assets, but noted that the numbers he's seen on the game management side are worthless because things are so situation-based in football. He claims that a stat person who's played football and had been a military officer might fit the ideal profile for developing such stats.

Kraft later chimed in with some rare Patriots-Colts agreement in noting that football personnel management has an extra layer of complexity because of the variation of scheme and style from team to team. (Note: The Patriots fan in me is uncomfortable with all the praise Kraft lavished upon the evil Polian!)

-- The most interesting exchange of the panel was NFL-based, as the Patriots and Colts execs discussed Bill Belichick's controversial 4th-and-2 decision during the recent NFL season. Kraft said that, knowing Belichick, he predicted on 3rd-and-2 that it was four-down territory, and wondered if Polian thought the same at that time.

Polian said that he did think it was a possibility at the time due to the game situation, with the Patriots defense suffering from injuries and exhaustion. Polian said he thought it was 100% the right decision given the game situation, and that he would have made the same decision.

Polian went on to say that the Pats had had great success in the Tom Brady era running QB sneaks on 4th down, and that New England lined up in their QB sneak formation for the fateful play. The Colts president credited his coach, Jim Caldwell, for having a defense prepared enough to be ready for a pass.

Cuban quipped that difference in the NBA is that the coach yells out the play, and the defense still can't stop it.

-- Lewis started a discussion about whether some NBA teams know more than others. Simmons adamantly said yes, noting, "Some teams are cheap. I have season tickets to one of them." [Ed. Note: that would be the Clippers.] He went on to say, "Do you think [Clippers owner] Donald Sterling even knows what PER is?" Simmons said it was a huge edge for an owner like Cuban, even if the Mavs owner couldn't say so himself.

-- Cuban thought that one of the biggest edges for him was in understanding 5-man lineup performance. He said there are times when certain opposition lineups indicated lineup data wasn't being communicated with coach - and that he gets excited when he sees certain opposition lineups come on the floor.

-- Simmons said he thought that one of the most interesting areas to analyze in the NBA was around chemistry. He noted how the Thunder selected James Harden over Tyreke Evans in the draft, and that, even though Evans was a better player, Harden was a better fit for Oklahoma City. Simmons also conceded that he thought the Kidd-Harris trade was working out better than most expected because Kidd was the right fit for Dallas.

-- Lewis asked Morey if he believed in clutch stats, long a controversial difference between common fans - who worship the art of the clutch - and statheads - who tend to believe that the idea of clutch statistics are not definitive and conclusive.

Morey artfully answered, "We don't make any decisions based on the belief of that." Interestingly, Cuban disagreed, and said that that was one reason he wanted Kidd, whom he believes plays differently in "win time" than he does in the other 45 minutes of the game.

-- Does it help and is it necessary for modern front-office members to have played the game? Simmons noted that in the NBA, some of the top team execs have played on the professional level, some haven't. The Sports Guy went on to say that he thought it was increasingly hard for ex-players to run what are essentially corporations, and negotiate with agents from Harvard Law School. Morey countered by saying, "All else equal, it helps if you've been a professional athlete in a sport," and used Mitch Kupchak as an example of a GM who is a smart guy enhanced by experience as an NBA player.

-- Lewis asked Morey about the risks inherent in the Moneyball movement. Morey noted that plenty of smart economists contributed the collapse of the world economy by believing so strongly in their analysis that they lost the sense of where there was risks and things could break down. He said that sports franchises ran the same risk of applying numbers indiscriminately.

-- Other entertaining quips and quotes:
• Maybe the most entertaining moment of the panel was when Kraft said that he had worked with three coaches - Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick - who have very different intellectual capabilities. Thinking better of making such a statement publicly, Kraft appealed "Please don't tweet that" to the audience, to an uproarious response, and Cuban pulled out his Blackberry for a faux-tweet in jest.

• One of the funnier interactions occurred when Morey said that Cuban winning a championship might bring down the league office. Cuban said "that might explain a lot of things." Simmons joked that "that explains 2006." (Note: Bennett Salvatore is not attending the conference.)

• Polian, a veteran executive, was adamant about the importance of bringing new generations of young people who are current with fresh ideas into organizations.

• As far as non-stat based ideas in the vanguard, Cuban noted how important psychological testing was to him on multiple occasions, and said that he thought personalized medicine, tailored for individual athletes, would take on increased importance in the next 20 years.

• Simmons noted that one problem in the NBA was that coaching staffs may not be receptive to stat-analysis advice from front office. He asked Polian if it was same in NFL, and the Colts president said it was the complete opposite. Use of in-depth analysis by coaching staffs was embedded in NFL culture.

• When Lewis asked if there was one area you don't know that you wished you knew more about, Cuban jumped in with a one-word answer: "Referees."

• In commenting on why owners may make bad hires as GMs, Simmons speculated that star-struck owners may pick guys they'd rather hang out with, and needled his buddy The Dork Elvis as he asked rhetorically, "Would you rather hang out with Michael Jordan or Daryl Morey?"

On that note, we sign off from a fascinating day in Boston.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Is Jerry West Overrated as a GM?

Ask the average pro basketball fan or media member, "Who's been the best NBA general manager of the last 30 years?" and the answer you are very likely to hear in return is "Jerry West." West would win any such poll by acclamation, as he has assumed a legendary status as a personnel evaluator.

I certainly think that Jerry West has a very good eye for personnel, but I have tended to believe that West has ultimately been overrated as a GM because he had a huge advantage over the competition in working for the Lakers, the league's marquee franchise - the clear-cut no. 1 most attractive market to players, in terms of both city and team.

It's a big year for Jerry-Westology, with Roland Lazenby's biography, Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, having just been released, and a new autobiography from West himself coming in the fall.

Despite the double shot of West books, the main impetus which caused me to reconsider this topic was actually a couple of notes in the recent Magic/Bird book (with Jackie MacMullan), When The Game Was Ours, as well as The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons.

Namely, let's go back to the 1979 NBA Draft, when Bill Sharman was the Lakers' general manager and West was a key member of the front office (he would become general manager after the 1981-82 season). This Simmons footnote caught my eye:
    In Magic's book, he writes that Jerry West wanted to trade down and pick Moncrief - remember, they already had Norm Nixon playing point - only Jerry Buss overruled him because he was buying the team and Magic was a bigger name.
Say what now? I feel like I should even go HBO Real Sports on you here, and repeat the information again gratuitously for emphasis.

When The Game Was Ours confirmed the story:
    Magic's visit with the Lakers also went well. He walked out convinced they would take him if they selected first - until he read an LA Times article on the plane ride home discussing general manager [Ed. Note: This is an error in the book – Bill Sharman was GM at the time.] Jerry West's fascination with Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief, the team's plans to bring in UCLA forward David Greenwood for an interview, and speculation that the Lakers could use the draft selection to trade for a power forward.

    "Maybe they don't like me as much as I think," he confided to his father.

    What Magic didn't know was that Dr. Jerry Buss, the future owner of the Lakers who was about to buy the team from Jack Kent Cooke, told the Lakers front office that he expected the team to draft Magic.

    "They resisted because Jerry West really liked Moncrief too," Buss said. "But I told them, 'It's Magic, or find yourself another buyer.'"
Let's not underestimate Sidney Moncrief here - he was a hell of a player who may yet make it into the Hall of Fame, but it obviously would have been a serious error to draft him over Magic Johnson, and a setback to the efforts of building a championship Lakers team in the '80s. The fact that Buss and Sharman had to save West from himself here seems like a strike against the Logo.

This is my main beef with West as a GM: I've believed that the acquisitions of the superstars which keyed each of the two championship runs he presided over were acquired due to tremendous good fortune as much as West's acumen.

In the '80s, the two cornerstones were of course Magic, whom we just discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was acquired via trade in 1975. Let the record show that West was fortunate not only just because he inherited Kareem, but also because of the advantage of the L.A. market - Kareem specifically requested that he be traded to either New York or Los Angeles.


As far as the superstars of the early-2000s run, West of course deserves much credit for having the eye to spot Kobe Bryant's talent when few others did, and being ahead of the curve early in the preps-to-pros era. However, I don’t believe that West ever would have landed Bryant if he hadn’t been with the Lakers.

The New Jersey Nets also had Kobe evaluated as potential star and sat ahead of the Lakers in the draft at no. 8. L.A. was at no. 13 after West traded Vlade Divac for the Hornets’ pick.

So, how and why did Kobe land in Hollywood instead of the Meadowlands? There have always been conflicting accounts on the specifics. Lazenby’s account is quite charitable to West. Dime ran this brief excerpt in a recent story:
    First West had to take the huge gamble of trading veteran center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for their thirteenth pick in the draft. Then he learned that John Calipari, the coach of the New Jersey Nets, planned to take [Kobe] Bryant with the eighth pick before the Lakers could snare him at thirteen.

    "Jerry wanted Kobe, so he basically called up and talked Cal out of drafting Kobe," explained Hal Wissel, who was with the Nets at the time. West encouraged the Bryant family to talk to Calipari and explain that their son really wanted to play for the Lakers. "He knew if we didn’t take him at eight, he’d drop to Charlotte, and he could make the deal with Charlotte," Wissel recalled. "Cal was young in the league and, hey, it’s Jerry West on the phone."
Here is how Chris Sheridan, then with the AP, reported things in 2002, when the Lakers and the Nets met in the Finals:
    "[Bryant] was our pick. We had dinner with his parents the night before the draft and we told them he was our choice," recalled John Nash, who was New Jersey's general manager at the time.

    The Nets had brought Bryant in for three workouts, and a year before that they had been hearing stories from the likes of Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Doug Overton and Tim Legler about a 16-year kid from Lower Merion H.S., who was lighting up every NBA player he was matched against in workouts at the Philadelphia Sporting Club.

    The afternoon of the draft, Nash received two phone calls - one from Bryant and one from his agent, Arn Tellem.

    "They said Kobe had had a tremendous change of heart," Nash said. "Kobe suggested he wouldn't play in New Jersey."

    Within a couple of hours, Nash learned that the Hornets and Lakers had worked out a deal to sent Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to Bryant. Lakers president Jerry West had already offered Divac to the Nets for the eighth pick, but New Jersey turned it down.

    As Nash recalls, he, then-coach John Calipari and then-owner Joseph Taub discussed what to do. Nash wanted to call Bryant's bluff and take him anyway; Calipari wanted to take Kerry Kittles (agent David Falk was pleading with the club to select Kittles, just as Tellem was begging them not to draft Bryant), while Taub wanted to take John Wallace to fill a need at small forward.

    Calipari had final say, and the Nets decided to pick Kittles with the No. 8 pick.

    "Arn Tellem had something to do with that. I don't know how much leverage a 17-year old kid can have," Bryant said. "At that point in time I was ready to play anywhere - Mars, Jupiter, New Jersey, Charlotte, didn't matter."
Perhaps the most entertaining account of the saga comes (unsurprisingly) from Sonny Vaccaro, who was with Adidas at the time, and wanted to make Bryant a centerpiece of the company’s basketball marketing. He told his version of the tale in rollicking detail back in December on Chris Vernon’s radio show in Memphis. It’s a highly recommended listen.

Vaccaro claims that Kobe's father, Joe Bryant, told the Nets brass on the day of the draft that "Kobe wasn't going to go to New Jersey, he was going to go to Italy." It was a plausible bluff, considering Kobe spent a few years of his childhood in Italy when Joe played there. But Vaccaro then said, "I doubt with the competitiveness of Kobe Bryant that he would have gone to Italy. We'll never know."

Kobe wanted to go to L.A., it was clear. As Vaccaro said, "First of all, it's Jerry West, and it's the guy on the [logo] and all that stuff. And it's the Lakers. There is something to it. It wasn't like Jerry West was with the Omaha Mushriders."

John Nash and John Calipari were every bit as accurate as Jerry West was, but they did not have the power of the Lakers franchise behind them. Yes, West was shrewd in his evaluation of Kobe Bryant, but without the Lakers, he never would have landed him.


I have to admit that I started this piece very strongly believing that Jerry West was overrated as a GM, but my research into the Shaq signing has shifted my position a little bit. I carried the common misconception that, because he signed for less money in L.A. than Orlando ultimately offered, Shaq had planned all along to head to Hollywood no matter what.

In reality, it was a much bolder gamble by West which pushed the signing forward in the summer of 1996. Though, still, the move was only plausible because the L.A. Lakers were one of the few franchises with the marquee value suitable for Shaq. He never woulda been goin' to Memphis, no matter who was there.

Steve Springer did an outstanding job piecing together the Laker moves of the pivotal "Summer of '96" for the L.A. Times back in 2001. Here’s an excerpt:
    Drafted by Orlando in 1992, he was a free agent at the end of the 1995-96 season. It was assumed O'Neal, involved in the music and movie business, and so enraptured with L.A. that he kept a car here permanently, would be interested in the Lakers.

    But to this day, his agent, Leonard Armato, insists the Magic was O'Neal's first choice. "Shaq wanted to stay in Orlando," he says, "and we were going to do whatever possible to ensure he stayed there."

    No other team was allowed to even talk to O'Neal or Armato under league rules until July 11, 1996. No earlier than 2 p.m., to be specific. By 3 p.m., Armato was in West's Bel-Air home.

    West already had the first piece of his puzzle, having traded his starting center, Vlade Divac, on June 26 in order to clear room under the salary cap and obtain Kobe Bryant. But that had left the Lakers a big hole in the middle. "It was nervous time," says Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka. "We had traded our starting center to shoot for the moon."

    That's an apt description, according to Armato. "The stars must have been truly aligned," he says. "For Shaq to wind up in Los Angeles was purely fortuitous. It required a variety of circumstances to fall into place."

    The first of those circumstances was the Magic's initial offer to O'Neal--four years at $54 million. "We were slightly disappointed," says Armato in a heavy dose of understatement. "You would think that someone who said they wanted to make a major commitment would extend the contract as long as permissible under league rules." That would be seven years.

    "The [Orlando] media became so critical of the possible contract," Armato says. "The Orlando fans began to question whether Shaq was worth the amount of money needed to sign him. It was one thing after another. Shaq was disappointed. After that, we felt it was worth looking around. We felt, from a business standpoint, it made sense to examine the alternatives.

    "That was the crack in the door. Jerry West kicked that door open and ran right in." What he ran in with was a seven-year, $95.5-million offer. Still, West had his doubts. He considered signing Dale Davis instead. West warned owner Jerry Buss that getting O'Neal could be a long and draining process, with no guarantee of success. Buss told West to think big and keep his checkbook open.

    On July 16, the Lakers traded Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to the Vancouver Grizzlies for future considerations, basically giving the players away to free up $3.63 million.

    Finally, on July 18 at about 1 a.m. in an Atlanta hotel room in the midst of the Olympics, O'Neal, a member of the U.S. dream team, signed a dream deal with the Lakers, $120 million for seven years. At the end, Orlando had come up with nearly the same money, but it was too late.

    West described the magnitude of the signing as second only to the birth of his children.

    Armato found himself wandering the streets of Atlanta after O'Neal put his name on the contract. "I didn't know what to do to celebrate," Armato says. "But I knew something special had happened, something historic."
Longtime Magic executive Pat Williams, the man of a million books, had enormous amounts of praise for West in his book The Paradox of Power:
    "We, of course, were trying to re-sign Shaq, and we weren't overly concerned that we might lose him. Obviously, we thought, the Lakers would have liked to sign him, but they couldn't; they didn't have enough room under the salary cap.

    We underestimated Jerry West's boldness as a strategic thinker.
    The instant we heard that Lynch and Peeler were leaving L.A., we knew we were in big trouble. The Lakers could now afford Shaquille O'Neal.

    Within hours, the Lakers made their move. We got a call in the dark of night from Shaq's agent, Leonard Armato, telling us that Shaq was going to sign with the Lakers. We said, "Don't let him sign; we'll top the Lakers' offer. And we did - but it didn't matter. Shaq had made up his mind to go to L.A. and the Lakers' offer was close enough.
    It had all been a huge gamble of Jerry's part - a complex chess game in which he had traded away three starters for the chance (which was far from guaranteed) that he would be able to acquire Kobe and Shaq. The stakes were high, the odds were long, and the entire scheme could have easily ended in disaster.
    But Jerry West took his bold gamble and he won big time. It was the boldest sports move I have seen in my entire career. Even though my team was on the losing end of that deal, I had to admire the sheer chutzpah of Jerry West.
It wasn't fated, I'm a believer. West deserves a lot of credit for making the Shaq signing happen, but again, if he hadn’t been with the L.A. Lakers, he never would have been in the conversation.


One area in which West was undeniably outstanding was in filling out his championship teams with the right players around his superstars.

West grabbed franchise mainstay A.C. Green with a late first-round pick in 1985, and then did the same with Derek Fisher in 1996. He boldly replaced popular vet Norm Nixon with rookie Byron Scott in 1983.

And West also picked a good fit in going with James Worthy over Dominique Wilkins and Terry Cummings with the no. 1 overall pick in the 1982 draft. Nique and Cummings were so good that I'm not sure either would have derailed Showtime, but West's logic that Big Game James was a better fit as a third wheel who didn't need the ball as much as Dominique would have is plausibly sound.

Also, West was ahead of the curve on international players with his selection of Vlade Divac in 1989, a great value pick late in the first round.

One other note in When The Game Was Ours which jumped out at me was about Bill Walton, when he was looking to change teams in the summer of 1985:
    "Walton contacted the Lakers first, but West was wary of his medical issues, so Walton placed a call to Red Auerbach."
Whoa – the key acquisition which pushed the Celtics from Finals losers in 1985 to all-time great in 1986 could have been negated by West.

That said, Walton was already broken down by 1986-87, when West made up for that error with his trade for Mychal Thompson, seen as a Pau Gasol-like fleecing of its time, which pushed the Lakers over the top to an all-time great season of their own.


Some people note that West lifted the Grizzlies to their best seasons by far during his tenure there. This is true, but it is also true that Memphis never won a single playoff game there. First-round exits are not what legendary GM status is made of. Just ask Kevin McHale.

West never got his superstar in Memphis, losing out on one of the ultimate all-or-nothing NBA moments in the 2003 LeBron Lottery, when the Grizzlies had to give their pick to Detroit if it was anything below no. 1. Of course, West was left empty-handed when Memphis ended up no. 2 (though Detroit arguably ended up with less-than-nothing in Darko Milicic…).

My favorite moment, however, came after the 2007 draft lottery, right before West stepped down as the Grizzlies general manager. Memphis had the worst record in the league in 2006-07, but ended up just no. 4 in the lottery. Afterward, West said, "It's grossly unfair to the team, but I've said it before, I don't think the lottery is fair."

It has to be one of the richest comments in NBA history: Jerry West complaining that things were unfair to him, after building a legend as a executive on the back of the huge advantage of the L.A. market and Lakers franchise.


After all this, one thing which has made me more sympathetic to West is trying to figure out who's been better, especially after looking back at Kelly Dwyer's list of the top 10 GM's of the 2000s.

The list is headed by San Antonio's R.C. Buford. The Spurs' arc really hasn't been much different than West's with the Lakers. They've done an outstanding job of unearthing the right players to fill in around the great fortune of winning two prized lotteries for David Robinson (1987) and Tim Duncan (1997), without whom the rest wouldn't be possible.

Go back a decade, and Jerry Krause would be near the top. As good as he was in building the Bulls' roster, the one essential thing he did was inherit Michael Jordan.

Other guys on Kelly's list include Donnie Nelson and Kevin Pritchard, GMs fortunate to have the advantage of largely unlimited spending.

Geoff Petrie and Joe Dumars both justifiably made the list as well. I thought that both men did significantly more impressive jobs than West in building their contenders and, in Dumars' case, champions in the 2000s. But Dumars has been atrocious in recent years, and Petrie has seemed to have fallen behind the times in recent years. Neither has been as consistent for as long as West was.

All in all, it shows that being fortunate in one way or another is a key element of becoming legendary as an NBA GM (or as a coach, really). I still think that Jerry West is overrated as a general manager, and I still don't think he is the mythical figure he's made out to be as a personnel man. But when I ask the question: "Who's been consistently better than Jerry West in the post-merger era?", it's tough for me to come up with anyone.