Wednesday, February 24, 2010

LeBron On Pace To Shatter Forward Assists Record

I've become so accustomed to the 30-7-7 stat line which LeBron James has routinely accumulated on a regular basis in recent years that it's hard for his statistical accomplishments to surprise me at this point. But when I checked his season stat line recently, the 8.5 assists per game jumped out at me, as it sure seemed very high, even by LeBron's standards.

Sure enough, when I plugged in a request to Basketball Reference, asking for the most assists per game by a forward in a single season, I was startled by the results. Here are the top 15 single seasons by a forward:
    1. LeBron James, '09-10: 8.5
    2. Larry Bird, '86-87: 7.6
    3. Larry Bird, '89-90: 7.5
    4. John Havlicek, '71-72: 7.5
    5. John Havlicek, '70-71: 7.5
    6. Grant Hill, '96-97: 7.3
    7. Larry Bird, '90-91: 7.2
    8. LeBron James, '07-08: 7.2
    9. LeBron James, '04-05: 7.2
    10. LeBron James, '08-09: 7.2
    11. Scottie Pippen, '91-92: 7.0
    12. Grant Hill, '95-96: 6.9
    13. Larry Bird, '85-86: 6.8
    14. Larry Bird, '91-92: 6.8
    15. John Havlicek, '69-70: 6.8
LeBron is on pace to not just break this mark, but shatter it - almost a full assist per game ahead of Larry Legend's best single-season mark. Also, note that only one of the top nine forward assists-per-game seasons was accomplished in fewer minutes per game than James' 39.0 so far this season (Bird, '90-91, 38.0).

Obviously, the big catalyst in pushing LeBron's assists up to another level has been the spate of injuries to the Cavs backcourt, most notably to point guard Mo Williams, which has increased James' responsibilities as a distributor.

LeBron was ahead of Bird's pace prior to Mo's injury, as he was averaging 7.7 assists per game in the first 43 games, but then took a big jump when Mo went out:
    LeBron James 2009-10 assists
    Before Mo injury: 43 games, 7.7 apg
    During Mo injury: 11 games, 10.5 apg
    Since Mo's return: 4 games, 10.8 apg
LBJ has continued his passing hot streak since Mo has returned and tried to acclimate himself back into the lineup, averaging 10.8 in the 4 games since Mo came back, after dishing out 13 dimes in Cleveland's win over the Hornets on Tuesday.

Further, James' assists have proven to be even more valuable because he is especially adept at finding players for three-pointers. While LeBron ranks 6th in the league in assists per game overall, he is 3rd in assists per game which lead to three-pointers, at 2.7 per game, according to Hoopdata, trailing only Chris Paul (3.1) and Steve Nash (2.7).

All told, it's been a monster February for LeBron, as he's averaged a 32-7-11 on 50% FG in carrying the Cavs through their stretch of injuries. When all is said and done, I think LeBron James' 2009-10 season will go down as the greatest passing season by a forward ever, though I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, because LBJ is not too far away from having the greatest season ever by a forward, period.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Trade Deadline Musings: With Nate Robinson, Should The Celtics Create a Pressing Unit?

Wow, quite an active trade deadline here in 2010, with lots of notable names being moved around the country. Here are a few of our thoughts on the proceedings:

We touched on this topic generally in May, after Malcolm Gladwell's celebrated New Yorker article called "When David Beats Goliath" stirred up conversation.

In short, Sideshow Mal wondered why underdog teams didn't take more chances with unconventional tactics, using the example of an undertalented team of 12-year-old girls in California which achieved outsized success by employing a full-court press against opponents who weren't used to encountering such a defense.

In a subsequent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Jeff Van Gundy noted that "Hubie Brown used a press successfully with the Knicks, mostly a pressing second unit coming off the bench." Indeed, Hubie's teams rated 3rd and 1st, respectively, in defensive efficiency in his first two seasons in New York (1982-83 and 1983-84), after inheriting a team which ranked 17th of 23 in D in '81-82.

Further, in an e-mail exchange between Gladwell and Bill Simmons on in May, Simmons modernized and specified the concept. We'll run the same brief excerpt we ran in May here:
    With a 12-man roster, you'd only need to train five or six guys to pull off that press. Let's say next season's Bulls trained the following five: Joakim Noah, Ty Thomas, Kirk Hinrich, Lindsey Hunter and Generic Athletic/Hungry Swingman X. They practice and practice until they become a well-oiled pressing machine. For the first five minutes of every second and fourth quarter, they unleash that killer press on their opponents … who, by the way, would be playing backups during that time, making it even more effective. Wouldn't that be an ENORMOUS advantage? Wouldn't that swing a few games? Wouldn't opponents dread playing them? Wouldn't opponents have to waste practice time preparing to break that press? Wouldn't it be even better at home with the Bulls flying around and their fans going bonkers? The key would be not putting "press miles" on your top guys and your wealthiest guys (who would never be totally invested because, again, they're really, really wealthy and don't need this crap). In this scenario, the Bulls wouldn't press with Rose, Deng, Brad Miller, Ben Gordon or even John Salmons if they could help it.
Following Boston's acquisition of Nate Robinson, we ask: aren't the Celtics a pretty good candidate to give this kind of pressing strategy a whirl right now?

Here are our pros and cons:
1. Why not?
As things stand currently, the Celtics essentially have no chance to win the championship, even after the Robinson acquisition. The C's are old, they are flawed, and they lost 13 of 22 heading into the All-Star break. Why not try something different to mix it up? What is there to lose? Boston seems like a perfect Gladwellian example of a team which should be open to an unconventional approach. And on the heels of a Super Bowl which turned on an onside kick to open the second half, why not?

2. The freaks
The main point to me is just in looking at the team's strengths and weaknesses. The Celtics lack overall athleticism with KG, Ray Allen and Sheed all well past their physical prime, and Pierce on the wrong side of 30 as well.

Yet, they now have possibly the two freakiest small athletes in the league in Rajon Rondo and Nate Robinson. Both men can cover so much ground so quickly that I think they could be really disruptive flying around as the trigger men for a pressing, trapping D for a few minutes at a time, to try to create a few turnovers, pick up a few points, and change the tone of a game.

3. Restore home-court edge
Boston has still been an outstanding road team this year - its 19-9 road record ranks second only to Cleveland's 19-8. Where the Celtics have struggled has been at the New Garden, where they are just 15-9, the 17th best home record in the league.

As Simmons suggested, one of the side benefits of a pressing style is that it can really rev up the home crowd. Boston has a loud and knowledgeable fan base as it is - I think they'd really latch on to using a second unit in this manner, despite any lasting scars from the Pitino era.

1. Roster is close, but doesn't quite work
The pressing lineup that I'd envision for Boston would include Rondo, Robinson, Tony Allen, Marquis Daniels and Shelden Williams. As mentioned above, I think Rondo and Nate have the physical ability to be hugely disruptive forces. Tony Allen would probably maximize his ability in a system where he was primarily asked to just play crazy on defense. I'm not fond of Shelden Williams as a player in general, but again, a system where he is mainly asked to lay back and protect the rim, and grab boards to trigger a running game is pretty well-suited to his ability. We're just looking for 8-10 minutes from him here.

So it's close to a pretty good lineup overall, but the worry would be that you'd be wearing out your point guards, given that Rondo, Robinson and Daniels are the three guys who can handle PG duties on the club. Still, I wonder if Rondo and Robinson are in good-enough condition that they could handle 10 or so pressing minutes for a couple months with no problem.

2. Not practical to get in shape
The biggest problem is that, in the ideal scenario, you'd probably want a training camp and full season to get guys into shape and familiar with a pressing scheme. There's so little practice time that it'd be a challenge to install at this point in the season.

That said, the key guys - Rondo and Robinson - are probably in good enough condition for this today. Daniels would the guy who I'd be worried about, shape-wise, considering he is 29, and has missed so much time this season. And these guys have played basketball all of their lives, and have surely pressed and trapped at some point in their careers - it's not rocket science (note to self: do not take this for granted when it comes to Tony Allen).

3. Nate not considered a good defender
This would be the least of my concerns. As guys like John Schuhmann of and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus have pointed out in recent days, guys like Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen and Mo Williams are examples of players who've moved to league-worst defenses to league-best defenses in recent years.

Defensive culture and coaching matter a lot, and the C's have both in spades. Nate Robinson certainly has the physical ability to be an effective pressing defender. As a Seattleite, I've seen Nate play pressure defense effectively in both high school and college - and geez, I even saw him defend on the football field as a ball-hawking cornerback (that's a joke, people... well, mostly) - so I think it's in him. I think he could accept the challenge, especially because I think it would be potentially beneficial to him.

Do I see a pressing second unit as a can't-miss, no-brainer for the Celtics? Absolutely not - there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Again, the point is that the Celtics are in a can't-win situation right now. It's the time to consider unorthodox tactics, and pressing for a few minutes at a time with Rondo and Nate might work. And, hell, it would be a lot of fun to watch. Why not?

Do I expect the Celtics would consider such a tactic? Absolutely not. I just said that Boston needs unorthodox tactics, but Doc Rivers is about the most orthodox basketball man I can imagine.

I've written about this multiple times in the past few years, but I really believe that Yao Ming has the ability to be the hub of a passing offense which is beautiful to watch, a la Walton with the '70s Blazers or Webber/Divac with the '00s Kings.

Now, with the acquisition of Kevin Martin, all of the potential pieces are in place.
- The architect of the Kings passing game, Rick Adelman, is here.
- T-Mac's ball-stopping, movement-stopping ways are gone, replaced by Martin, a man of perpetual motion.
- Luis Scola, long experienced in the beauty of the passing game/motion offense of the Argentina national team, is here.

We just need the Big Fella to get back healthy, and I have my fingers crossed that we'll see him stationed at the mid-post as the hub of the Rockets offense, with cutters like Martin and Trevor Ariza slashing around him, playing off of Scola's passing ability as necessary, and knocking down unblockable 10-12 footers all night long.

As much as a running game like the Suns' is fun to watch, I will take a passing game like the old Kings any time. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I feel like Houston is actually really close to making this a reality. If I had just one wish for what I'd most like to see in 2010-11, I think it might be this.

The trade deadline action was so ferocious that some teams seriously denuded themselves in the chase for 2010 cap space, to the extent that there's probably more cap space than viable free agents at this point. As such, there are a few teams which are going to be looking at long rebuilds.

As Kevin Pelton wrote about the Wizards, "Since the team is going to be largely building from scratch, that is going to be a lengthy process even if Washington lands John Wall this summer. Think Portland Trail Blazers rebuild, but at its very beginning--2004-05, four years before the Blazers returned to the postseason."

Forget John Wall, after things shake out this summer, a couple teams are going to already be playing for Michael Gilchrist, the phenom high-school junior from New Jersey who is likely to be the big prize of the 2012 draft! And if things don't go as planned this summer... that means I'm looking at you, New York Knicks.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Interview with FC Barcelona's Pete Mickeal on Ricky Rubio, Fran Vazquez, More

We really weren’t expecting that The Painted Area would become so Euroleague/FC Barcelona-centric all at once here at midseason, but it’s just kind of worked out that way. Jay Aych started with a Euroleague Top 16 preview, and I added an updated scouting report on Ricky Rubio. Now, we have the third piece of our impromptu trilogy, an interview with Pete Mickeal, a 6-6 American forward who is a key piece for Regal FC Barcelona, a team loaded with talent which has a 30-3 record overall in the Euroleague and the Spanish ACB. Barca had been undefeated in Euroleague play prior to a 67-66 road defeat at Partizan Belgrade last week.

Coming up on Thursday, FC Barcelona has a huge Euroleague game against Panathinaikos, the defending Euroleague champions, with the loser potentially facing an uphill battle to qualify for the Quarterfinal Playoffs. (Timberwolves fans will have the opportunity to catch two of their well-regarded draftees – Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic - in one fell swoop in this game.)

The Barca-PAO game can be seen live online on ESPN360 at 2:45 p.m. ET on Thursday, and can also be seen on Sat., Feb. 20 at 1 p.m. ET on NBA TV. (ESPN360 will also be showing Josh Childress, Linas Kleiza and Olympiacos vs. KK Cibona live on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET.)

Pete Mickeal is probably best known to American basketball fans for his play as an Honorable Mention All-American with the Cincinnati Bearcats in 1999-2000. He was drafted by Dallas with the last pick of the 2000 NBA Draft, and spent a year on the injured list as a member of the Knicks.

From there, Mickeal won the ABA MVP with Kansas City in 2002, and then bounced all over the world, playing in the Philippines, Greece, Russia and South Korea, before establishing himself as a top player in Spain with TAU Ceramica (now called Caja Laboral), one of the best pro teams outside the NBA, in 2007-08. Mickeal won the Spanish ACB Finals MVP award in 2008, and also helped the club reach the Euroleague Final Four. This season, he joined the juggernaut at Regal FC Barcelona, and in December, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express wrote: “At the tender age of 31, Pete Mickeal may be having the best year of his career, as he finally appears to have broken into the elite category of American players in Europe.”

Mickeal was an engaging interview as he spoke with The Painted Area about his team and career, as well as teammates Ricky Rubio and Fran Vazquez, via phone from Barcelona on Friday. (You can also read more from Pete Mickeal in his blog on HoopsHype.)

Let’s start by asking you to make the case why American fans should be interested in watching FC Barcelona?
That’s funny (laughs). Well, aside from having the young phenom, the 19-year-old phenom Rock Star Ricky Rubio, besides having him, the fifth pick in the NBA draft, we’ve got a great team. We’re a great screen-and-roll team – a lot of options with the weakside three-pointer or the alley-oop.

We’ve got Juan Carlos Navarro, who was in the NBA a couple years ago with Memphis. We’ve got Fran Vazquez, who was drafted by Orlando. Me, who was drafted by Dallas, traded to New York. We’ve got a lot of players with a lot of experience – NBA experience, and also international experience – a lot of championships have been won between us players.

We play exciting basketball, we play an uptempo style. We don’t play a walk-the-ball-up-the-floor style. There’s a lot of flashy passes, a lot of three-pointers, a lot of slam dunks. A lot of fast-break points – I think it’s a joy to watch our team. I enjoy watching my teammates sometimes.

For you personally, it’s been a long road to get where you are now, as an established key player on a top European team. Now you have some of the most efficient stats in Europe, and you’re moving up the Draft Express list of overseas free agents at age 31 – they called you “the Paul Pierce of European basketball.”

So we’re wondering if you still have NBA aspirations, or if you’re more comfortable in Europe, where your market value may be higher at this point?

Well, I get asked this question a lot, I’ve kind of learned how to answer this question. There’s no aspirations for Europe, there’s no aspirations for NBA. What it is, is every year finding the best possible situation for myself. We’re not only talking about money, we’re talking about living conditions, we’re talking about a chance to win championships, we’re talking about a chance to re-sign for more years. Those are the keys for me.

It’s not only about if somebody in the NBA offers me a contract. First of all, it would have to be enough to at least be the same as my contract here, because of the taxes being so high in the States. You get 45% taxes and another 10% for your retirement fund and that’s 55% of your money already gone. And you get paid in dollars. So those are different things on the business side that I understand. The fact that you have to pay your agent in the States, you have to pay so much in taxes, and it’s a different style of living.

For me, I’m very comfortable here in Europe, and I’m also comfortable living in the States playing in the NBA. It’s two great markets. Anybody would be blessed to be in the situation to have both sides wanting you. So that’s the way I look at it – as a blessing more than anything. I don’t really look at it as do I want to be in the NBA or do I want to be in Europe. Every year I’m searching for the best possible situation, and this year I found a great situation here at FC Barcelona.

You mentioned the young phenom Ricky Rubio. Give us a scouting report from an NBA perspective, since we all expect him to make that jump at some point. How would you assess his potential as an NBA player?
The sky’s the limit because I’ve already seen him grow. I’ve been with him now about four months, and I’ve already seen him grow, especially in controlling a team.

And as flashy as he is with his moves, his ballhandling skills or his unbelievable passes, he’s sometimes as good on defense as he is on offense. That’s his skill that might go unknown in the NBA world, but here in Europe they can already appreciate that. I don’t know if he still leads the league in steals, but this guy plays unbelievable defense on the point guard and he rebounds the ball and he’s improved his three-point shooting.

He has so much more confidence in his three-point shooting, and we all know he can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. I mean, you’ve got a guy who can do everything. His confidence is so high, this is the reason he’s so good. It doesn’t matter if he misses a shot or if he makes an unbelievable pass and doesn’t complete it perfectly, he’s still going to go back the next play and continue to play.

For being 19, he’s well beyond his years. For me, his mind is the same type of mind as Steve Nash for passing and having the mindframe to control the game. We’re not talking about having the exact same skill level, we’re talking about having the mind to control the game, in any situation.

He’s 19 years old, but believe me, nobody in this locker room looks at him as 19. We look at him as Ricky, that’s it. He’s proven himself. I’m the only one who jokes with him and calls him “Young Fella” (laughs), but that’s it. He’s proven himself. He goes to work every day, he comes in early to shoot. What I’ve learned for him is that his work ethic is second to none – this is what’s going to get him to the top.

What do you think might be the toughest part of his transition to NBA, eventually?
With two years here playing on the best team in Europe, playing against good competition against other great point guards, I think it’s going to be an easy transition for him because the game in the NBA is so wide-open – it’s played perfect for him.

Up and down, he can run all day. He can play screen-and-roll all day, he can play transition – in the NBA, you’ve got a lot more of a transition game than in Europe. Guys go up-and-down a lot more, shoot the ball faster.

Here, teams run more sets. It’s very rare that we go up the court and shoot a shot early in the shot clock. We run our plays through. We take shots on fast breaks when we have the opportunity but mostly we run our plays.

Now, our team’s got transition and the half-court, too, so that’s why we put a lot of points on the board. And we also boast the best defense in the Euroleague, and Ricky is the leader of that defense. He’s the guy who has the stop the point guard.

On your blog on HoopsHype, you mentioned that you call him “Rock Star”. What’s the craziest scene of fans interacting with Ricky Rubio that you’ve seen in Spain?
Well, he’s got the long, bushy hair and he wears his shorts down… down low (laughs) – and the Rock Star thing came in our first game of the year. We played a team in Galicia, a northern part of Spain, and I saw two girls actually… I mean… I mean… whoa… I don’t know if they passed out, but it was very close to that. I mean, it was unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe it.

There were people when we opened the door to come out of our hotel room, and they were already there on the floor. We couldn’t even go to the elevator because they were waiting to see him. And I’ve seen girls... this girl’s face was so red, and she broke down, on the ground. On the ground! Like, two of them – they broke down on the ground. It was unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like that in basketball.

So, he’s like the Beatles or the Jonas Brothers?
He’s like a Jonas Brother, that’s right.

Fran Vazquez is a guy who really stands out when watching FC Barcelona. The stereotype around European bigs is that they’re slow and plodding, but Vazquez is very active, and has length and agility more like an NBA big. We know about the Orlando situation, where he was drafted 11th in 2005 and then chose not to come over.

Do you ever get a sense from talking to him about whether he’s content to stay in Spain, or if he ever might still be interested in coming over to the NBA at some point in the future?

I speak to Fran every day, he has the next locker to me, so I probably have more communication with him than most of the other guys. The thing about the Orlando situation is that he’s never commented on it. He has never said one word about it, and with me, if a guy doesn’t say anything about it, I’m not going to force him to talk about it (laughs). He hasn’t said one word about it, ever.

Fran is the type of guy who goes about his business. He does his job, he’s a very humble guy, and he leads by example. He’s not a big talker. He’s one of those blue-collar guys. He goes to work, he’s gonna play defense, he’s gonna block shots. He’s gonna dunk everything close to the basket. It doesn’t matter where, he’s dunking it.

I’ll tell you what: Orlando could use a guy like Fran Vazquez. With the screen-and-roll, the guy can shoot jump shots at the top of the key very, very well, and he also can roll to the basket and finish. He has a great combination of skills that are very rare for European big guys. He loves the top-of-the-key jump shot, that’s his favorite shot. And he also loves to roll to the basket for the alley-oop and you can throw the ball anywhere close to the basket, and 9 times out of 10, he’s gonna finish it.

Last thing… your team has been very impressive, and you have lots of guys with NBA experience or who are NBA prospects. So the big question is: how many games would your team win in the NBA?
Well, it depends on different situations. On October 2nd, the Lakers come here to play us – well, we’ve already been in training camp since about August 23rd. So, we’re already a month-and-a-half ahead. We’re in shape ready to play our first regular-season game, and the Lakers have to come here and play us when they’re fresh off of vacation in the Bahamas or wherever, and they only have a few days to prepare for us. That game might be a little different because we’ll be ready to go.

Now, you talk about February and the All-Star break, and our team being at the peak right now, and the NBA teams also being at a high level, then you have to see.

I like to get into debates a lot, but when it comes to Europe and NBA, it’s two different games, two different rules… It would also depend on the rules we play. If we play by FIBA rules, as you’ve seen in the recent Olympics and the World games, the USA struggles a lot when they play FIBA rules, there’s no doubt. Now, if we played NBA rules, I’m sure USA would always dominate.

You’ve seen Argentina years ago, with Ginobili, Scola, and these guys – they beat these guys in the World games in Indianapolis and the 2004 Olympics under FIBA rules. In 2008, the USA avenged themselves and they won, of course, but they didn’t do it easy (laughs). It was a difficult game against Spain – it came down to one or two possessions.

So, it depends on the rules we play. If we play FIBA rules, it’s going to be a very, very, very difficult game for NBA players to play. We all know that, we watched that – the World games and Olympics are evidence. There’s no doubt about it. We play NBA rules, maybe us guys in Europe have a harder time. It all depends on the rules we play.

Thanks for your time today, and best of luck to you and your team.
I appreciate it, thanks a lot.

Again, you can read more from Pete Mickeal in his blog on HoopsHype.

Friday, February 05, 2010

2010 NBA All-Stars: Where They From?

Hello, folks, it's All-Star time, so as we did last year, we wanted to do some quick, simple analysis on the backgrounds of this year's All-Stars - where they came from, how much college ball they played, when they were drafted, how they got to their current teams. Here we go:

Dwyane WadeChicago, IL35Draft
Allen IversonHampton, VA21FA
Dwight HowardAtlanta, GA01Draft
LeBron JamesAkron, OH01Draft
Kevin GarnettMauldin, SC05Trade
Paul PierceInglewood, CA (L.A.)310Draft
Chris BoshDallas, TX14Draft
Joe JohnsonLittle Rock, AR210RFA/Trade
Derrick RoseChicago, IL11Draft
Rajon RondoLouisville, KY224Draft/Trade
Gerald WallaceChildersburg, AL125Exp. Draft
Al HorfordPuerto Plata, DR33Draft
David LeeSt. Louis, MO430Draft

Steve NashVictoria, BC415FA
Kobe BryantL. Merion, PA (Philly)013Draft/Trade
Tim DuncanSt. Croix, US V.I.41Draft
Amar'e StoudemireOrlando, FL09Draft
Carmelo AnthonyBaltimore, MD13Draft
Dirk NowitzkiWurzburg, Germany09Draft
Pau GasolBarcelona, Spain03Trade
Chauncey BillupsDenver, CO23Trade
Deron WilliamsThe Colony, TX (Dallas)33Draft
Brandon RoySeattle, WA46Draft
Kevin DurantRockville, MD (DC)12Draft
Zach RandolphMarion, IN119Trade
Chris PaulWinston-Salem, NC24Draft
Jason KiddOakland, CA22Trade
Chris KamanGrand Rapids, MI36Draft

Let's also include the following players as "Near All-Stars" - these are guys who were selected as All-Stars by some of our preferred analysts, such as John Hollinger, Kelly Dwyer, and Kevin Pelton.

Note that the coaches really seemed to do a good job with their selections this year. Josh Smith was the only egregious snub, and it seems like a good possibility that he'll get a nod as an injury replacement one way or another. And if you take into account that Kaman and Lopez were only selected because the rules require a center be chosen, there really wasn't much quibbling this year:

Josh SmithAtlanta, GA
David LeeSt. Louis, MO
Andre IguodalaSpringfield, IL
Brook LopezFresno, CA
Chris KamanGrand Rapids, MI

[Feb. 11 Note: Kaman and Lee have been upgraded from near All-Star to All-Star.]

First, we plotted all of these guys onto a Google map to quickly examine the question: Where do the best basketball players in the world come from? (All-Stars in blue, "near All-Stars" in red - click + and - for different views)

View 2010 NBA All-Stars - Where They're From in a larger map

A few thoughts on this year's geography:
- The metropolitan areas which win the award for multiple All-Stars this year are the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (Chris Bosh and Deron Williams) and the Chicagoland area (Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose), thanks to first-time appearances for PGs D-Will and D-Rose.

Atlanta could be joining them soon if Josh Smith gets a replacement call-up nod. This would earn a special citation for the ATLiens because of the legendary Atlanta Celtics AAU team a few years ago which featured *both* Howard and Smith, as well as Javaris Crittenton and Randolph Morris. Two NBA All-Stars would help their case to be regarded as the best AAU team ever assembled.

- We discussed the topic "What Happened to the NYC Ballplayer?" at length in last year's post. Once again, there are zero New York-bred NBA All-Stars, and there hasn't been one since 2004.

- This season, the Deep South has seemed to fare disproportionately well once again, with the addition of Alabama kid Gerald Wallace. Also, it's a good year for the Midwest, with young PGs Rose and Rondo, and season surprise Zach Randolph, stepping up to join superstars LeBron and D-Wade on the All-Star stage.

- Hit "-" a few times to back the map out, and there's one of the interesting stories of the All-Star year: only two players (Dirk and Pau) from outside North America. Certainly, Yao's injury is a factor, but also, guys like Ginobili, Parker, and Nene have fallen off the list of All-Stars/near All-Stars from last year's map. Of course, this isn't definitive, as the two Spurs have been hampered by injury, and Nene has still played well (as has Marc Gasol and Aussie Andrew Bogut and others), but it still seems like you might want to hold your horses on a U.S. vs. the World All-Star game for just a bit....

- One last homer note from the 206: Seattle once again has produced an All-Star in Brandon Roy, but of greater note is that, with the call-up of Will Conroy to the Rockets, there are 13 NBA players who played high school ball in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area. With a population of about 4 million, and considering there are 360 American players in the league, the probabilities are such that there should be about 4-5 area players in the NBA. Hey, throw me a bone, it's all we've got up here.

Couple other general thoughts on the backgrounds of this year's All-Stars:
- Once again, this should serve as a reminder that All-Stars are guys who were selected high in the draft almost as a rule, and they are guys who get acquired through the draft. Make those lottery picks count.

Steve Nash is really the only high-impact guy on the list who was acquired as a free agent - it'll be interesting to see if the events of this summer change that paradigm next year.

- Average college experience - East: 1.5, West: 1.7, Overall: 1.6 (down from last year's number of 1.8). [Note: as of Feb. 11, those numbers are now East: 1.7, West: 1.8, Overall: 1.75.] Once again, let's just note that the best players in the world these days do not play much college basketball, which is why the quality of play is so much lower than it was a generation ago.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Herbert Warren Wind on Red Holzman, Phil Jackson and the Early '70s Knicks

A little bit random today, but... while researching a couple things about the fabled early '70s New York Knicks teams, I somehow stumbled upon a story from the April 7, 1975 issue of The New Yorker called "The Right Men in the Right Place" (available only to New Yorker magazine subscribers), by the gloriously named Herbert Warren Wind.

It's truly a walk into a different era of sportswriting, as Wind offers an expansive essay on the NBA in the transition era from the Bill Russell retirement in 1969 through 1974, when several key players retired, including Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Willis Reed.

In particular, Wind analyzes the beloved Knicks of that era (champions in 1970 and 1973) in great detail, and if there is a singular protagonist, it is the Knicks Hall of Fame coach, Red Holzman, described in the piece by his chief protege, then-Knick Phil Jackson, as "a very gentle guy who gets his players appropriately prepared for the lifestyle of pro basketball" - a phrase which, perhaps minus the "very gentle" part, seems as though it could apply equally well to Jackson himself.

In the recently published The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons quoted a blurb from a 1956 Sports Illustrated cover story on Bob Cousy by Wind, and then footnoted that "You had to like the fifties, when sportswriters had names like 'Herbert Warren Wind'."

But Herbert Warren Wind was more than just a dandy name, he was a decorated writer who was known mainly as a legendary golf writer during his long career at the The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated, though he covered other sports as well. A 2005 obituary in the Boston Globe called Wind the "poet laureate of golf" and noted that he came up with the nickname of Amen Corner for the pivotal holes at the Augusta National Golf Course.

With the best writers seeming to be more specialized by sport today, I guess it feels surprising that a golf writer could have such a nuanced feel for another sport like basketball, but Wind certainly offers richly detailed analysis as part of his elegant piece on the Knicks.

I particularly enjoyed these details on Phil Jackson, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley, as it seems that the men as described in 1975 are quite similar to the ones we know in 2010:
    "[On team flights,] most of the members of the team relax by gabbing or playing cards, but three -- Jackson, Bradley, and Frazier -- prefer to sit apart, in order to get some reading done. Jackson, a pleasant man who gets along well with people, reads books dealing with philosophy, psychology, and religion. When his basketball career is over, he would like to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, and it is difficult to think of a person who would be better at it. This winter, Bradley was reading Martin Mayer's "The Bankers" and Carl Jung's "Man and His Symbols," and was preparing to dig into a congressional-committee report on solar energy. He does a lot of underlining, and used to do even more. "I now underline facts mainly, not the guy's theories," he says.... Frazier regularly studies two books -- Bartlett's "Familar Quotations" and Webster's Pocket Dictionary. When he comes across a quotation or a definition that has particular significance to him, he copies it down on a pad, the better to retain it."
Quotating and notating!

[Ed. note: As Clarence Gaines (aka @cgrock24) tweeted: "Phil Jackson stated when he was with the Knicks that he wanted 'to teach in a 1-room schoolhouse' (Goal Accomplished)." Amen.]

As Phil Jackson stands on the cusp of yet another significant coaching record - most wins by a Lakers head coach - I loved reading this excerpt, which gives a sense of how the protege picked up a sense of flexibility and letting players think for themselves from the mentor:
    The Knicks under Holzman had a sizable repertoire of offensive plays -- about twenty, each with many variations -- but they were not at all averse to adopting another team's play that they thought might work for them.... (Jackson and Bradley in particular were forever thinking of plays the Knicks could utilize to good advantage themselves, such as a blind-pick play that Chicago ran to open up the lane for a cut by Bob Love, or a Los Angeles staple in which Gail Goodrich raced toward West at one side of the court and set a pick for West to swing around.) "I always wanted the players to feel free to suggest new things for our offense," Holzman told a visitor not long ago. "Then they'll break their neck to make them work. If they don't use their basketball intelligence, all their years in the game become an untapped spring that's going to waste. I don't mind telling you that our team won many games because of suggestions the players came up with. They made me a better coach."
If you like details from another time like these, there are pages and pages of them in "The Right Men in the Right Place" and I'd also recommend Wind's 1986 New Yorker story "Bird and Boston" (again available only to subscribers), which offers a snapshot of Larry Bird at his height.