Friday, January 30, 2009

Marc Iavaroni, Stan Van Gundy and
The Way The Coaching Carousel Bounces

Marc Iavaroni, after serving as a well-regarded assistant to both Pat Riley and Mike D'Antoni, was a hot commodity on the coaching market two summers ago. He seemed to be able to pick and choose the right job for him, so after he accepted the Grizzlies job, we had a post where we asked "Marc Iavaroni, what are you thinking???" and wrote:
    I'm somewhat shocked that he agreed to be the coach of the Grizzlies, which has to be considered the worst head coaching job in the league right now, doesn't it?... If you're going to take on a rebuilding job right now, wouldn't you want it to be in the East?... There were reports that Orlando wanted to interview him, but Iavaroni took the Memphis job before throwing his hat in the ring to potentially replicate the great work that he's done in developing Amare Stoudemire on D. Howard.... What's worse for Iavaroni is that the Memphis organization appears to be in dreadful shape, just bleeding money. I think Iavaroni should have passed this "opportunity" up -- I don't think anyone can succeed coaching this franchise in the near future.
Here's what the New York Daily News was reporting regarding the Orlando opening (probably should be taken with a few grains of salt, considering it is Mitch Lawrence, after all):
    Orlando wants to go up-tempo and has identified Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni as a top candidate for its coaching vacancy. Iavaroni was supposed to have the Memphis job locked up and is also high on Seattle's list. Not bad for a career assistant. But the best thing about Iavaroni, as far as Orlando is concerned, is that Stoudemire has blossomed under his tutelage. That makes him an ideal fit for the Magic's Dwight Howard.
Apparently, Iavaroni didn't want to wait to hear about the Magic job, and potentially miss out on other jobs:
    The Magic called and received permission to talk to Iavaroni last week. Iavaroni's agent, Warren LeGarie, said the Magic were already familiar with Iavaroni having interviewed him two years earlier. But because the Magic took three weeks to decide whether or not to fire Brian Hill, it left them way behind Memphis in the pursuit of Iavaroni.

    "They were already well aware of who he is and what he's all about, but by the time the decision was made on (Brian Hill), we were already too far into the process with Memphis," LeGarie said.

    "Orlando is really just now starting the process. The conflict of timing had a lot more influence on our decision. We were already set up with a certain idea and objective that the Magic couldn't prevent. They were waiting on me to tell them whether or not this thing (with Memphis) would finish up quickly. Then, we would have addressed the spot here in Orlando."
With the way things have turned out, that seems fairly short-sighted, doesn't it?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Iavaroni had pursued and ultimately received the Magic job in the summer of '07, which certainly seems like it could have been plausible.

If that had happened, Stan Van Gundy would, in all likelihood, have become the coach of the Sacramento Kings. SVG ended up causing a little bit of a stir that lingers in Sac, as he flew to Sacramento to interview for and presumably accept their job, even though he was negotiating with the Magic at the time, which he did not disclose to Team Maloof.

I think Stan Van Gundy is an outstanding NBA coach, who is probably this season's NBA Coach of the Year by acclamation, and should especially be commended for the work he's done in turning the Magic into one of the league's top defensive teams, even though they would seem to have several average-to-below-average defenders on their roster. (Amazing that Stan and brother Jeff are both so good and wringing maximum defensive performance out of their personnel.)

Still, all that said, you need a base level of talent to be a successful coach in the NBA, and I think that, if the musical chairs had landed differently, Stan would possibly be out of a job today.

If Iavaroni had taken the Orlando job and SVG had landed in Sacramento, here's where I think we'd be today:

- Orlando: A solid 3 seed in the East, but not within striking distance of Boston or Cleveland. Still doing well enough that Iavaroni would be safe as the team's head coach, but not a championship contender.

- Sacramento: I actually thought that Reggie Theus did a good job wringing victories out of that injury-laden club last season, but let's say that Stan made a difference of 7 games on that team so far this season (which seems like a pretty good-sized number).

The Kings would be 17-30 instead of 10-37, in 10th place in the West, still well out of the playoff hunt, and still with no buzz at what used to be the NBA's hottest arena. You'd have to think that, at best, SVG would be looking at a firing at the end of the season.

- Memphis: They would still be the worst franchise in professional sports, as Jeff Van Gundy called them this weekend, regardless of any of this.

I certainly can't say that I'm sure Marc Iavaroni is a good NBA head coach, but I also think you can't say that his Memphis experience proves that he is a bad coach. (Just look at the first season of his former boss, Mike D'Antoni, who went 14-36 with a horrendous Nuggets team in '98-99, if you need further proof of that.) All we're trying to say is that the decisions that coaches make in accepting and not accepting jobs can have a huge impact on whether they are ultimately viewed as successes or failures.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hoops on TV Week: Jan 29-Feb 4

Here's our look at highlights from the next 7 days of basketball on TV. We come at it from the perspective of an NBA fan for the most part - college/high-school listings will focus on top prospects, as well as the biggest games. All times Eastern.

1 p.m.: ABA - 1976 All-Star Game, NBA TV
The last ABA All-Star Game. Not sure if they show the Glen Campbell pre-game concert.

8 p.m.: NBA - Cavaliers at Magic, TNT
Here's a hint: pretty much any time there's some combo of the league's elite teams (LAL, BOS, CLE, ORL) and players (add MIA, NO), it's going to be included on here.

10:30 p.m.: NBA - Spurs at Suns, TNT
Won't be seeing too many more matchups of the two dominant players of the '00s - Shaq and Timmy.

11 p.m.: NCAA - (22) St. Mary's at (20) Gonzaga, ESPN2
WCC powerhouses square off, including prospects Austin Daye and Patty Mills.

1 a.m.: NBA - 1988 Three-Point Shootout, NBA TV
Still the greatest shootout ever, because of this:

2 p.m.: NBA - 1980 All-Star Game, NBA TV
Bird and Magic's rookie ASG goes to OT.

5 p.m.: NBA - Pistons at Celtics (1987 ECF, Game 5), ESPN Classic
Bird makes the steal:

8 p.m.: NBA - Lakers at Timberwolves, League Pass
Good test for Minny, who's been one of the best teams in the league since the New Year.

9:30 p.m.: NBA - Warriors at Hornets, ESPN
Hopefully, Monta's starting to get his legs under him by this one, so he can run and gun with CP3.

1 p.m.: Euroleague - Real Madrid v FC Barcelona, NBA TV
Matchup of the eternal Spanish rivals.

4 p.m.: NBA - 1982 All-Star Game, NBA TV
Shaping up as quite a TV week for Larry Bird, as he was the MVP of this tight game. I can't remember if it was '80 or '82 where he made a gorgeous touch pass down the stretch. I think it was '80. KD, help me out here.

7 p.m.: NBA - Knicks at Pacers, League Pass
The two teams who give up the most PPG in the league. Get a little Granger in your life.

Noon: NBA - Magic at Raptors, League Pass
This is mainly a way to say "Booooooooo!" to ABC and its Cavs-Pistons afternoon matchup. We remember when the pre-Super Bowl NBA game was annually a titanic matchup, one of the top games of the year. Give us some combo of Cavs, Celtics and Lakers here. No Pistons, please.

7 p.m.: NBA - 1984 All-Star Game, NBA TV
If the Super Bowl bores you, you've got a high-scoring OT game in Denver with Magic setting a record with 22 assists.

4 p.m.: NBA - 1985 All-Star Game, NBA TV
The famous Isiah-organized "freeze out" of MJ in his rookie year.

7 p.m.: NCAA - (7) Louisville at (2) Connecticut, ESPN
Enigmatic prospects (Hasheem Thabeet, Earl Clark, Terrence Williams) and pompous coaches galore.

7:30 p.m.: NBA - Lakers at Knicks, League Pass
Sometimes I don't get the schedule - it seems like Kobe and the Lakers at the Garden is worthy of a national broadcast.

Noon: SportsCentury - Magic Johnson, ESPN Classic

4 p.m.: NBA - 1987 All-Star Game, NBA TV
Bill Simmons rates this as the greatest All-Star Game of all time. I still favor 1992 and 2001, and last year's was pretty good, too, despite the two-tone unis.

7 p.m.: NBA - 1988 All-Star Game, NBA TV
MJ pwns Chicago: he takes the ASG MVP after his controversial homer win over Nique in the dunk contest.

Noon: SportsCentury - Bill Walton, ESPN Classic
The greatest SportsCentury episode in the history of Western civilization.

7:30 p.m.: NBA - Cavaliers at Knicks, League Pass
See what I said above about Kobe and the Lakers @ MSG being worthy of a national telecast? Well, quadruple that sentiment here. Wow, huge week at the Garden.

8 p.m.: NBA - Bulls at Hornets, League Pass
Derrick Rose tries his luck vs. Chris Paul.

8 p.m.: NBA - Bulls at Celtics (1991), ESPN Classic
I love classic games like this - just a random otherwise-forgotten quality regular-season matchup, in this case, between the 53-17 Bulls and the 51-20 Celtics. Click here if you want to know the results, but otherwise I won't spoil it, except to give you these numbers:
- Jordan: 37-7-9
- Bird: 34-15-8
- Pippen: 35-10-9
- R Lewis: 25 pts, 4 blk
And those '91 Bulls are one of my all-time favorite teams to watch b/c of the way they trapped so aggressively on D with the "Dobermans": Jordan, Pippen and Grant.

Have a great hoop week.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Importance of Good Board Scores (Part II)

Recent piece by Basketball Prospectus' Anthony Macri (via TrueHoop) reminded us of a post we did about two years ago on the correlation of rebounding and title chances. Mr. Macri cautioned that Orlando's '08-'09 championship aspirations could ultimately be derailed by mediocre rebounding. And he was on to something.

In our April '07 post we examined the rebounding numbers of the NBA Finals participants between 1987 to 2006.

It was no surprise that strong rebounding is a key component to winning titles. But we found it interesting that out of the 40 teams to make the Finals in that 20-year span between '87 to '06, only four teams had a negative rebound margin for the regular season. We also found that the +1 rpg margin threshold seems to be a strong indicator if a team can win the title. If your team rebounds below the +1 rpg margin for the regular season, you're unlikely to win the title.

Since we did the initial post, Boston won a title with a +3.12 rpg margin & the Spurs had a +1.6 rpg margin for '06-07 reg. season. Last season's Lakers had a +1.35 margin, and the '07 Cavs were a tough boarding club at +3.66.

- In the last 25 seasons (1983-84 to 2007-08), only four teams have made the NBA Finals with a negative rebounding margin for the regular season:
    '86-87 Celtics (-0.1 rpg)
    '93-'94 Rockets (-0.4 rpg)
    '94-'95 Rockets (-2.8 rpg)
    '99-'00 Pacers (-1.6 rpg)
- In the last 25 years, every NBA champion besides the two Rockets' title teams has had at least a +1 rebound per game margin in the regular season.

Basically if you want your team to make the Finals, you must hope for a positive rebound margin for the regular season. And if you want to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy, at least a +1 rebound per game margin is pretty much required. Don't have to be the best rebounding team to win the title, just can't be a subpar board team. Here are the regular-season rebound margins for the Finalists of the past 25 seasons:
    1983-84: BOS +4.5 | LAL +2.3
    1984-85: LAL +3.5 | BOS +4.3
    1985-86: BOS +5.1 | HOU +2.1
    1986-87: LAL +2.3 | BOS -0.1
    1987-88: LAL +1.7 | DET +3.0
    1988-89: DET +4.6 | LAL +3.7
    1989-90: DET +3.9 | POR +6.0
    1990-91: CHI +3.3 | LAL +2.4
    1991-92: CHI +4.3 | POR +5.0
    1992-93: CHI +3.3 | PHX +2.6
    1993-94: HOU -0.4 | NYK +5.5
    1994-95: HOU -2.8 | ORL +3.0
    1995-96: CHI +6.6 | SEA +0.9
    1996-97: CHI +5.3 | UTH +2.9
    1997-98: CHI +5.2 | UTH +4.6
    1998-99: SAS +2.0 | NYK +0.4
    1999-00: LAL +3.9 | IND -1.6
    2000-01: LAL +3.4 | PHI +4.0
    2001-02: LAL +1.1 | NJN +0.4
    2002-03: SAS +1.7 | NJN +1.5
    2003-04: DET +2.2 | LAL +0.7
    2004-05: SAS +2.2 | DET +3.8
    2005-06: MIA +4.3 | DAL +3.9
    2006-07: SAS +1.6 | CLE +3.6
    2007-08: BOS +3.1 | LAL +1.3
The D'Antoni-era Suns were criticized for not being able to protect the rim (and rightfully so), but their poor rebounding might have been just as crucial to their inability to get out of the West. Here are the Suns' rebounding margins in the D'Antoni years:
    2004-05: -2.0
    2005-06: -4.1
    2006-07: -2.3
    2007-08: -2.4
So fans of Orlando, San Antonio, Denver, Detroit, & New Orleans have to feel a little uneasy because these teams all have rebound margins hovering around the 0 rpg margin mark. While contenders like the Celtics, Lakers, Cavs, and Rockets are strong boarding clubs all above the key +1 rpg threshold as of Jan. 25.

Here are the margin numbers for the top 10 teams this season:
    Lakers: +3.2
    Cavs: +3.1
    Celtics: +5.4
    Magic: -0.1
    Spurs: 0.0
    Nuggets: +0.4
    Hornets: -0.5
    Blazers: +4.3
    Rockets: +2.5
    Hawks: -1.6
Now, one way in which the Magic are similar to the '90s Rockets champions is that they have compensated for poor rebounding with exceptional performance in one of the other Four Factors (statistical categories which correlate most closely with winning), effective field-goal percentage (eFG%).

Specifically, both the Magic and the Clutch City Rockets received an extraordinary advantage in three-point shooting, as eFG% measures field-goal shooting by simply counting each 3-pointer made as worth 1.5 FGM, a more accurate measure of the points scored per each FGM.

In 1993-94, the Rockets ranked just 10th in overall FG%, but were 4th in eFG% because they made 429 3's in a year in which the league average was 270. Those Rockets attempted 1285 3's when the league average was 811.

When the line came in in 1994-95, the Rockets were still way ahead of the pack, going 646-1757 behind the arc in a year in which the league went 450-1255 on average. This boosted HOU from 6th in FG% to 3rd in eFG%. In both seasons, the Rockets easily led the league in both threes made and attempted.

This season, Orlando sports similar numbers from three: 446-1115 (2nd in both categories) for a sizzling league-leading mark of .400 in a year when the league average is 290-746 (.364) so far. The Magic are 2nd in eFG% even though they are 10th in regular FG%. Sound familiar? It seems like the Magic are going to have to keep up the hot shooting from downtown if they hope to replicate the '90s Rockets and compensate for their subpar rebounding with a title.

Here are the three numbers in table form:
              TEAM 3's       LG AVG 3's     FG%  eFG%
1993-94 HOU 429-1285 .334 270-811 .333 10th 4th
1994-95 HOU 646-1757 .368 450-1255 .359 6th 3rd
2008-09 ORL 446-1115 .400 290-746 .364 10th 2nd

(Note that both these clubs are also strong in other of the Four Factors, FT/FGA, on defense, a sign of quality defensive play from a big man inside.)

Still, Orlando could definitely use another big to bring off the bench, maybe a traditional 4-man who can rebound and guard bigs to spell Rashard Lewis would help. Not surprising that the Spurs, Nugs, & Hornets are desperately looking for auxiliary frontcourt help. The Pistons are hurt by Sheed's habitual underachieving board work. Increasing McDyess & Maxiell's minutes could possibly remedy the Pistons' subpar rebounding.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hoops on TV Week: Jan 22-28

Here's our look at highlights from the next 7 days of basketball on TV. We come at it from the perspective of an NBA fan for the most part - college/high-school listings will focus on top prospects, as well as the biggest games. All times Eastern.

Don't forget that there's a League Pass free preview running through Sunday.

1 p.m.: NBA - Raptors at Lakers (2006), NBA TV
Kobe goes for 81, in a nice NBA TV programming stunt featuring a day of 60+-point games.

7 p.m.: NBA - Inside the NBA Special, TNT
All-Star starters are revealed. Will it be Yi?

8 p.m.: NBA - Celtics at Magic, TNT
Two of the NBA's Big 4 - a no-brainer.

8 p.m.: NBA - Bulls at Cavs (1990), NBA TV
A career-high 69 points for MJ.

10 p.m.: NBA - Knicks at Jazz (1977), NBA TV
68 for Pistol Pete in New Orleans.

12 a.m.: NBA - Bucks at Jazz (1990), NBA TV
61 points for the Mailman.

9 a.m.: SportsCentury: Larry Bird, ESPN Classic

3 p.m.: NCAA - Duke at Maryland (2001), ESPN Classic
Duke comes back from down 10 with less than a minute to go. Or just watch the last minute here:

9:30 p.m.: H.S. - Fairfax (L.A.) vs. San Diego, ESPN2
Nice matchup between the enigmatic Renardo Sidney (uncommitted), rated as one of the top prospects in the class of 2009 (who we scouted last year) and Jeremy Tyler (Louisville), one of the best in the class of 2010.

10:30 p.m.: NBA - Cavaliers at Warriors, NBA League Pass
The late-night League Pass run-and-gun of the week.

1 p.m.: Euroleague - Tau Ceramica at DKV Joventut, NBA TV
Joventut will not be advancing to the next round of the Euroleague, so this is your last chance to get a look at Ricky Rubio, in this matchup of top Spanish clubs. Spurs draftee Tiago Splitter stars for Tau - S.A. sure could use him.

7 p.m.: NBA - Knicks at Sixers, NBA League Pass
With the Sixers having upped the tempo, this has the makings of an entertaining matchup.

1 p.m.: NBA - Mavericks at Celtics, ABC
3:30 p.m.: NBA - Spurs at Lakers, ABC
Welcome back, ABC - where you been?

6 p.m.: NBA - Suns at Hawks, NBA League Pass
8 p.m.: NBA - Jazz at Nuggets, NBA League Pass
It's the first Sunday in months with no football - why not make it an NBA quadruple-header?

9 a.m.: SportsCentury: Bill Russell, ESPN Classic

7:30 p.m.: NBA - Hawks at Heat, NBA League Pass
D-Wade, Joe Johnson, J-Smoove, Be-Easy - lots of intriguing players to watch in this matchup of the SE Division's top 2.

1 p.m.: NBA - 1970 All-Star Game, NBA TV
4 p.m.: NBA - 1972 All-Star Game, NBA TV
Aw yeah - time to crank up the old All-Star Games. The '72 game went down to the buzzer.

7 p.m.: NBA - Pacers at Magic, NBA League Pass
Indiana is averaging 109.6 ppg in January, and they do own wins over Boston and L.A., so there's some entertainment potential against Superman and the Mad Bombers.

12 p.m.: NBA - 1973 All-Star Game, NBA TV
2 p.m.: NBA - 1975 All-Star Game, NBA TV
Keep 'em comin'.

5 p.m.: NBA - Lakers at Warriors (2000), ESPN Classic
I vaguely remember watching this one - Kobe and Antawn Jamison *both* went for 51 in the same game. Good one.

7 p.m.: NCAA - Duke at Wake Forest, ESPN
Currently the top two ranked teams in college basketball, though Wake should slip a little after its loss to Va Tech. Prospects include Teague, Aminu and Singler.

8 p.m.: NBA - Nuggets at Hornets, NBA League Pass
Western Conference contenders, and two of the finest, headiest PG's in all the land.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Scouting Thoughts: Milwaukee Flexs, Beasley on the Blocks, Curry's Footwork, More

Welcome to The Painted Area to those of you possibly visiting for the first time via the TrueHoop Network. We are very excited to be a part of the network launch - we have a great deal of respect for Henry Abbott, Kevin Arnovitz and our blogging colleagues in the network, and we're honored that they asked us to join.

Without further ado, let's get to some quick-hitter observations from the last week or so in the world of hoops.

- Milwaukee Flexs: Nice to see that Scott Skiles has decided to install some flex sets into the Bucks offensive playbook. (More info: Utah's flex continuity O.) Can't recall seeing too much flex offense during his stint in Chicago. But some flex sets could have probably helped get some easy close-range shots for a Chicago team that had trouble getting to the basket. The Bucks look to be running a fairly basic flex set. Though, the few times I've seen the Bucks, they were far too concerned with looking for the elbow jumpers off the flex as opposed to looking for lay-ups & quick peel-n-seal post-ups off of the baseline cut/screen action. The Jazz they ain't.

- Give KG the Cold (Left) Shoulder: Probably not a terribly novel idea, but defenses need to try to force Garnett to turn over his left shoulder. He just loves to turn into his jumper over his right shoulder. Does not really matter which block, he wants to go right shoulder. It's not like he can't go left shoulder, he just loves going over his right.

- Beasley on the Blocks: Probably, like most everyone else, we were hoping for a better rookie campaign from Miami's Michael Beasley. Sometimes, we get worried about his lackadaisical approach, where he looks to be moving at half-speed, combined with half-hearted finishes at the rim. But we don't think he should take all the blame - we'd like to see Miami call more post-ups for Beasley on the low blocks. He's getting most of his looks at the elbows either off of pick-n-pops or spot-ups off of Wade/Chalmers ball screens. He's become too perimeter-oriented for my taste, and will sometimes hold the ball too long in iso situations, which often leads to well-contested drives. Think a better mixture of inside-outside could help his game.

- On Stephen Curry and Footwork: Well established that the Davidson prospect can drill from anywhere with his super-soft stroke (almost as sweet as his father's). No secret he's not a tremendous athlete, but has the ability to create space for himself thanks to great ball-handling & polished footwork. Has a very nice step-back move, especially when heading to his left. Also, has a killer crossover move where he can step back into a jumper. Definitely think he will be a defensive liability in the NBA, and do wonder how well he can finish deep in the lane.

But when you're not either a superb athlete or long for your position, one way to overcome physical shortcomings is to combine good ball-handling with sweet footwork, especially for perimeter players. It's an alternate way to create space for yourself vs. quicker, longer opponents. Two examples who come to mind are Brandon Roy & Steve Nash. Though Brandon is a better athlete than most realize, he has taken his game to all-star levels because of his adept ball-handling & advanced footwork. This is why I think Curry can be a pretty nice player at the next level. Maybe not an all-star, but a pretty solid starting pg.

[And one from M. Haubs:]
- Are We Being Van Gundyist?: We were really impressed with the Orlando Magic on their recent 4-0 Western road trip which included wins in L.A., S.A. and Denver. We're especially impressed with the defensive performance that Stan Van Gundy is wringing out of personnel which seems subpar defensively on paper.

In many ways, Stan's work seems similar to what brother Jeff did in seeming to get his Rockets teams to absolutely maximize their talent during the regular season. We used to have the feeling that JVG's Houston teams struggled in the playoffs in part b/c they played so remarkably close to 100% of their potential night-in and night-out during the season that they couldn't take it to another level come springtime.

We wondered - as we listened to Stan scream at his ballclub during a timeout vs. the Lakers - if Orlando might experience a similar phenomenon?

Are we being Van Gundyists to suggest such a thing? Probably. Stan's Magic are much deeper in terms of offensive weapons than Jeff's Rockets ever were, and Stan did take Miami to the brink of the Finals in '05, after all, only to be derailed by a D-Wade injury. Still, we tend to think Stan might have a Skiles-like run in O-Town, where he burns bright for a short period of time, but then his players burn out on him.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hoops on TV Week: Jan. 15-21

OK, we've got a new weekly feature here on The Painted Area called Hoops on TV Week - each week we'll have a look at highlights of the next seven days of basketball on TV.

We'll post heading into the weekend on Thursdays, and we'll be coming at it from the perspective of an NBA fan for the most part - college/high-school listings will focus on top prospects, as well as the biggest games. Suggestions are welcome.

All times Eastern. Our first week is a big one:

5 p.m.: NCAA - Virginia vs. North Carolina (1984), ESPN Classic
Anytime they show Jordan in college, it makes the list. First of three times this week.

8 p.m.: NBA - Suns vs. Celtics (1976 NBA Finals, Game 5), NBA TV
3-OT classic is considered the greatest game in NBA history by many. It's followed by an NBA's Greatest Games program about the game and a Vintage NBA episode about John Havlicek.

9 p.m.: H.S. - LeFlore (Ala.) vs. South Atlanta (Ga.), ESPN2
Two of the top 5 prospects in the class of 2009, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors (who just committed to Georgia Tech).

11 p.m.: NCAA - Arizona vs. UCLA, FSN
Longstanding Pac-10 rivalry includes top prospects Jordan Hill and Jrue Holiday, plus Darren Collison and Chase Budinger.

5 p.m.: NBA - Rockets vs. Magic (1995 NBA Finals, Game 1), ESPN Classic
Hakeem the Dream, at his peak, taps in the game-winner in an OT thriller.

8 p.m.: NBA - Hornets vs. Cavs, ESPN
10:30 p.m.: NBA - Magic vs. Lakers, ESPN
In terms of players and teams, you can't really ask for much more in a doubleheader than this.

1 p.m.: Euroleague - CSKA Moscow vs. Partizan, NBA TV
Euroleague game of the week on NBA TV includes defending champs CSKA.

1:30 p.m.: NCAA - Duke vs. Georgetown, CBS
Top prospect Greg Monroe takes on the Dukies.

3:30 p.m.: NCAA - Wake Forest vs. Clemson, ABC
Matchup of two Top 10 teams, plus potential Wake lottery picks Al-Farouq Aminu and Jeff Teague.

3:45 p.m.: NCAA - Arizona State vs. UCLA, CBS
Arizona State's James Harden is no. 3 on Chad Ford's Big Board.

4 p.m.: NBA - Celtics vs. Lakers (2008 NBA Finals, Game 4), ESPN Classic
Huge Celtics rally in the pivotal game of the '08 Finals.

6 p.m.: NCAA - Duke vs. North Carolina (1984 ACC Tournament), ESPN Classic
More Jordan at UNC. Actually a true classic of the rivalry, as Coach K was attempting to establish himself in his second season, against the no. 1-ranked Tar Heels.

7 p.m.: NBA - Heat vs. Thunder, NBA TV
If Steelers v. Ravens puts you to sleep, try D-Wade v. Durant instead.

10 a.m.: H.S. - Putnam City (Okla.) vs. St. Anthony's (N.J.), ESPNU
One of the top prospects in the country, Xavier Henry (Memphis), goes against perennial power St. Anthony's and a very good prospect in Dominic Cheek (Villanova).

2 p.m.: H.S. - LeFlore (Ala.) vs. Lincoln (N.Y.), ESPNU
Another appearance for DeMarcus Cousins, as he goes against ballyhooed prospect Lance Stephenson. Is he worth the hype?

5:30 p.m.: NBA - Pistons vs. Grizzlies, TNT
8 p.m.: NBA - Suns vs. Celtics, TNT
10:30 p.m.: NBA - Cavs vs. Lakers, TNT
MLK Day tripleheader closes with LeBron v Kobe. Oh yeah.

5 p.m.: NCAA - Texas Western vs. Kentucky (1966 NCAA Championship), ESPN Classic
Historic NCAA Championship - first all-black starting five to win it all.

3 p.m.: NCAA - North Carolina vs. Clemson (1983), ESPN Classic
Money in college, one more time.

7:30 p.m.: NBA - Suns vs. Knicks, League Pass
D'AntoniFest '09 hits the Garden.

8 p.m.: NBA - Nets vs. Hornets, League Pass
Top young point guards CP3 and Devin Harris go at one another.

10:30 p.m.: NBA - Thunder vs. Warriors, League Pass
Two Thunder games in a week! With Durant, Westbrook and co. running and gunning with Nellie's mad men, I'm smelling a late-night League Pass sleeper right here.

Monday, January 12, 2009

LeBron: Better Than Bird?

What a great time to be an NBA fan, with so many future Hall of Famers active. Among them, it is in my opinion most exhilarating to watch LeBron James, just turned 24, and Chris Paul, turns 24 in May, as young players who are already mounting a charge up the list of the game's all-time greatest players. How high can they go?

Well, both players raised the bar yet again last week with brilliant displays in big games. On Tuesday, CP3 turned in this beauty of a line in the Hornets' 116-105 win over the Lakers at Staples Center:
32 pts, 15 ast, 3 stl, 0 TO.

It was the first time a player had gone for 30+ pts and 15+ ast with 0 TO in a game since John Stockton did it back in 1989. (It's worth noting that David West [40 pts/11 reb] and Kobe Bryant [39 pts/7 ast/6 3pt] were also outstanding in a very entertaining game.) CP3 was everywhere, controlling the game as usual with his penetration and decision-making, and knocking down a variety of floaters.

Still, nothing we saw on Tuesday was comparable to the gauntlet LeBron laid down on Friday, in Cleveland's 98-83 showdown win over the Celtics:
38 pts (on 13-25 / 3-7 / 9-9 shooting), 7 reb, 6 ast, 4 stl, 3 blk.

It was an outright tour de force from LeBron, one of the best all-around games I've seen from him, mainly because those defensive numbers indeed reflect the disruption he caused on that end of the floor, an increasingly common complement to LBJ's production on offense.

On the ESPN broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy noted at one point that a defensive play James made was "Pippen-like" and that Scottie Pippen was the best help defender he'd seen (I agree). If LeBron's D becomes Pippen-like on a consistent basis, this is just going to get scary.

At one point, there was a graphic listing the top 3 MVP choices to date from both Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. Jax had LeBron-Kobe-D-Wade, while JVG was a bit daft with LeBron-Joe Johnson-D. Howard. Action Jackson and play-by-play man Dan Shulman teased JVG a little and there was some banter about the choices. Then Shulman asked if, despite the differences on their ballots, both men thought that LeBron was the clear no. 1 choice for MVP.

Neither analyst hesitated. Jax: "Clearly." JVG: "Clearly."

It amazes me how quickly the question "Who is the best player in the NBA?" has been rendered moot, after a few seasons where there's been legitimate debate among a few players (although Mssrs. Dwyer and Hollinger were ahead of the curve on this one, as usual...).

I'm sure that there are plenty of Kobe true-believers out there who beg to differ, but I'm sorry, the best player in the world is LeBron, and there's no question, and barring some sort of catastrophe, it will be that way well into the next decade.

Although there is no question in my mind that LeBron is currently the best player, I still found myself startled by how the on-air conversation continued after the MVP discussion.

Jackson said that, at age 24, LeBron is the best SF other than Larry Bird.

Van Gundy replied by saying, very simply, "Better than Bird."


It was a little bit confusing as it was unclear if they were talking about the best SF at age 24 or the best SF, period. It seemed like they meant "best SF at age 24", as Jackson indicated that he thought LBJ would be the best SF when all was said and done (there was no argument from Van Gundy).

Let's take a look at LeBron v. Bird stats at age 24. The biggest difference is that it is already LeBron's 6th season, while Bird was in just his 2nd season (1980-81) at age 24 b/c he had bounced around from Indiana to Indiana State and played his full four years of college:

LeBron: 35 36.6 .508 .302 .788 2.0 1.3 6.6 6.6 27.7 32.4
L Bird: 82 39.5 .478 .270 .863 2.0 0.8 10.9 5.5 21.2 19.9

Statistically, there is no question that LeBron is better at 24. The main question from here is whether LeBron can match the championship that Larry won at age 24 in 1980-81. Increasingly, the odds seem to be in his favor.

Again, it just kind of amazes me how quickly the discussion has seemed to evolve from "LeBron the prodigy with the great potential" to "LeBron is on track to be better than Bird."

And it's startling because, if you take a step back and remember that Bird is considered a top-10 player at least, a top-5 player by many, then how high up the list is LeBron going to go?

Certainly, it's nearly impossible to argue that LeBron is better, period, at this point simply b/c he has neither the 3 championships nor the 3 MVPs on his resume.

But, do I think LeBron is going to be considered better than Bird when all is said and done? I have to say I do.

Both are extraordinary passers for their size, Bird was a better rebounder and outside shooter, while LeBron finishes at the basket like few ever have.

I think LeBron has moved up the charts so quickly in part b/c he has answered the bell in two key categories:

1. Defense. This was cited by Van Gundy, who noted that the defensive improvements being exhibited by LBJ this season put him on a different level than Bird on that end. Larry was an underrated help defender who had very good anticipation, but LeBron offers unmatched athletic gifts on top of those traits.

2. Clutch Play. Of course, Larry Bird is considered one of the great clutch players ever, and a couple years ago, LeBron started taking a lot of heat for the perception that he was not a strong clutch player. I think he started to put those thoughts to rest with his 48-point performance in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, and in the last couple seasons he has been exceptional in clutch situations. tracks "clutch" statistics (defined as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points") and LeBron has been downright ridiculous this season, averaging 67.4 pts, 20.2 reb, 10.1 asts per 48 minutes in those situations, easily the leading scorer, and the 3rd leading rebounder.

It's a small sample size of 28 minutes (mainly b/c Cleveland has played so few close games), but it's consistent with his 2007-08 numbers in the clutch and the "super-clutch" (4th quarter or overtime, less than 2 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 3 points) - LeBron and Kobe stood out beyond all others in both of those categories.

All the talk about being clutch or not being clutch gets a little ridiculous - people wondered about Jordan's ability to deliver in the clutch as late as Game 1 of the 1991 Finals, when Chicago lost in the final seconds, for crying out loud. Still, LeBron is going to have to prove it once and for all in the Finals.


I had the opportunity to see LeBron play in person in high school. After the game, I e-mailed to a friend that the only question was "whether he goes down as one of the top 20 or so players of all-time or one of the top 2."

Increasingly, I lean toward the latter rather than the former: I think LeBron James has a chance to end up as one of the top 2 players of all time. (I'm not yet willing to go further than that!)

The beat goes on this week, folks: we've got Lakers-Spurs on Wednesday, and then an ESPN doubleheader on Friday with four of the top five players in the league, as well as four of the top five teams in the league: Hornets/CP3 v Cavs/LBJ and Magic/D-12 v Lakers/Kobe.

Savor it. Who needs football?