Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Hoop Documentary Power Rankings

It's the season when movie critics look back and evaluate the best films of the year. Fueled primarily by the astonishing output of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, 2010 has been the richest year for outstanding basketball documentary films that we can remember.

And this is on the heels of several hoop docs worth watching in the last few years, on a wide variety of topics, including Black Magic, Heart of the Game, More Than a Game, Gunnin' for That #1 Spot, Sonicsgate, Kobe Doin Work, 3 Points, Battle for Tobacco Road, Quantum Hoops and more.

With so much compelling stuff out there this year, I wanted to take a moment to offer my 2010 Hoop Documentary Power Rankings:

1. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (ESPN 30 for 30)
Director Steve James established himself as a documentary filmmaking legend with Hoop Dreams, not only the greatest sports documentary ever made (by leaps and bounds), but also one of the best-ever American documentary films, period.

With No Crossover, James offered the most fully-realized execution of the 30 for 30 ethos of first-person POV filmmaking, which led to disjointed narratives in the hands of other filmmakers (even some very talented ones) in the series.

In No Crossover, James revisits his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, and explores the effects of the celebrated - and racially divisive - 1993 trial of then-high-school-superstar Allen Iverson for his role in a bowling-alley brawl between a group of white kids and a group of black kids.

The brilliance of James's application of the first-person POV approach is that he manages to remain non-judgemental. He unearths the information, lays it on the table, and then leaves it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the trial, and ultimately, how they feel about Allen Iverson.

James shows how the Iverson trial - ostensibly a search for truth - breaks down into stark black-and-white lines of racial perceptions, and demonstrates that the real truth behind the trial, and behind Iverson himself, is wrapped into all sorts of ambiguities and contradictions.

In the hands of James, the trial is really the perfect lens through which to explore one of the most compelling and polarizing athletes of this era, Allen Iverson.

2. The Street Stops Here (PBS; TeamWorks Media)
An absolutely riveting behind-the-scenes look at the 2007-08 season of Bob Hurley, Sr.'s basketball program at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, New Jersey.

To suggest that Hurley is old-school, is unrelenting intense, and provides tough love to his players is a massive understatement. In addition to following the St. Anthony's season, The Street Stops Here also tracks the lives of St. Anthony's players (showing how vital the relentless discipline required to survive in Hurley's program is off the court as well), and tracks the fundraising efforts required to keep the St. Anthony's school alive (showing how vital the marketing of the basketball team - and Hurley's commitment to and participation in said marketing - is to the school's existence.

Hurley, who was very justifiably inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in August, is simply a force of nature, a hugely compelling character who drives the film along. Kudos to director Kevin Shaw.

3. Once Brothers (ESPN 30 for 30; NBA Entertainment)
What an incredibly moving story of the breakdown of the friendship between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic - and of the legendary Yugoslavian national team of the era - due to the devastating war between Serbs and Croats.

I certainly thought Once Brothers was first-rate, though the ending wrapped up a little too neatly for a story which probably called for more No Crossover-style ambiguity.

I absolutely loved the footage of the Divac-Drazen-Kukoc Yugos in action - what a beautiful team to watch. Would have loved to have seen even more of Kukoc, who offered wise and sober commentary at multiple intervals.

4. Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (HBO)
I wrote extensively on Magic & Bird after it aired in March.

I can't believe I have this rated only 4th, because I really loved it. Magic & Bird was an incredibly satisfying piece of nostalgia. As usual from HBO Sports, a well-known story was expertly constructed, with a flawless narrative which still managed to mine new information and rare footage - such as the downright breathtaking stuff of Magic and Larry playing together in the World Invitational Tournament as college players in the summer of 1978. I could watch Magic & Bird over and over, and probably will.

5. Guru of Go (ESPN 30 for 30)
I enjoyed this look at coach Paul Westhead and his fast-breaking Loyola Marymount teams, with an inevitable focus on the tragic 1990 on-court death of star player Hank Gathers.

It's hard to explain how insanely entertaining those LMU teams were to watch, with an emphasis on insane. It was the most relentless run-and-gun approach I've ever seen, and they remain one of my all-time favorite basketball teams to watch, on any level.

I would have preferred a little less of a focus on Westhead and his career journey, and more on those specific LMU teams and their execution of Westhead's vaunted system.

Still, any recap of Loyola Marymount's run to the Elite Eight of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, in the immediate aftermath of Gathers's death, gets me every time. I agree with 30 for 30 co-creator Bill Simmons that Bo Kimble's sinking of a left-handed free throw in honor of his close friend Gathers, in LMU's first tourney game, is underrated as one of the most moving moments in recent sports history.

6. The Association (ESPN; NBA Entertainment)
I know that The Association could be considered more of a reality-TV show, per se, than a documentary film, but I wanted to include it here, anyway, to share a few thoughts. There were two installments of The Association in 2010. One, in April, was a one-hour show tracking the Lakers' 2009-10 regular season. The second, in December, was a half-hour program on the 2010-11 Celtics, the first of five episodes over the course of the regular season.

Both installments were entertaining, for sure, especially with the comedic value of the cast of characters on this year's Celtics. The main problem for me is that HBO's Hard Knocks and now 24/7: Penguins/Capitals have shown that these types of documentaries can be so much more, and dig into storylines so much deeper. The Association is just trying to track too much real time with too little air time to explore storylines or personalities in a meaningful way.

7. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks (ESPN 30 for 30)
Dan Klores's epic Black Magic is on the short list of great basketball documentaries, but I was left largely unmoved by Winning Time.

I mean, I thought it was fine, but I had trouble getting past the fact that the importance of the Pacers-Knicks rivalry seemed to be wildly over-inflated. There were a couple of indelible performances by Reggie Miller (Game 5 in 1994, and Game 1 in 1995), for sure, but overall, these were not series which really decided championships or had an impact on NBA history, and were frankly pretty ugly to watch. It's a second-tier rivalry to me, but one of the teams was from New York, so I guess that makes it important.

The irony is that the Knicks *were* involved in an epic, pivotal rivalry in the '90s, it just happened to be against the Chicago Bulls. Winning Time tries to paint Patrick Ewing's miss at the end of Game 7 vs. Indiana in 1995 as a definitive moment of that Knicks era, but that team wasn't good enough to win it all; Charles Smith's denial at the hands of the Bulls' Dobermans in 1993 is much more definitive, to me.

Bulls-Knicks had better series, more-important series, more great moments, more compelling characters, many more dramatic storylines, and was just a better rivalry overall. I know that one of the missions of 30 for 30 was to present some lesser-known stories, but if you want to tell a story about a '90s Knicks rivalry called "Winning Time", it's gotta be Bulls-Knicks.

I didn't find Winning Time to be terribly groundbreaking stylistically, either. I'm not trying to be a hater, it was a well-made documentary overall, I just don't totally understand where all the over-the-top praise came from.

All that said, the John Starks reaction to Reggie Miller's eight-points-in-nine-seconds eruption - "Man, did this dude just did this?" - may have been the single best line uttered in any film this year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Orlando Moves: Why Not Gamble on Youth?

Watching the Orlando Magic early this season, the contrast was striking: Dwight Howard, with a noticeably improved offensive arsenal, looked better than ever, while Orlando's wing players looked just terrible, unable to create any offense. Through the end of November, Howard was my choice for MVP for having carried the Magic on his back to a 13-4 record.

As the bottom fell out in early December, it became clear that the Magic needed to make some kind of move to shuffle the deck, but to my eyes, they were at a crossroads, based on this single fact: Dwight Howard turned just 25 years old on Dec. 8. The quandary for Orlando was this: Do you gamble on veteran players to try to remain in short-term championship contention, or do you perhaps take a step back and gamble on younger players who could grow into a long-term nucleus alongside Dwight?

Now, we've learned that Howard has apparently been adding pressure of his own to the mix, reportedly threatening to leave in the summer of 2012 if the Orlando roster is not championship-worthy, making things even trickier for Magic management.

So, Orlando essentially exchanged Vince Carter (age 33), Rashard Lewis (31), Mickael Pietrus (28), and Marcin Gortat (26) for Jason Richardson (29), Gilbert Arenas (28), Hedo Turkoglu (31), and Earl Clark (22).

I think that this exchange is a mild upgrade for Orlando in 2010-11, and I especially like the Richardson acquisition, though I do not think it is enough to elevate the Magic back into true title contention.

More importantly, in the summer of 2012, when Dwight Howard is surveying the NBA landscape with the opportunity to be a free agent, I think there is no chance that this collection of players will be enticing him to stay. None. Arenas, signed through 2014, will be 30. Turkoglu, signed through 2013, will be 33. If Richardson, who is a free agent this summer, is re-signed, he will be 31. Arenas and Turkoglu might help Orlando this season, but these are players who have seen their best days. I think they will be in deep decline by the summer of 2012.

I hate to say that about Gil, I've loved the guy and his refreshing honesty over the years, but he can no longer live up to anything near the player who made his name averaging 29 points per game and 10 free-throw attempts per game. Knee injuries have sadly robbed him of his explosiveness.

In fact, when Magic-Wizards trade rumors floated in early December involving a deal of Arenas and Andray Blatche for Carter, Lewis and Daniel Orton, I thought that Blatche was actually the most intriguing name of the bunch.


Blatche is a 24-year-old 6-11 PF with excellent length, and in a 32-game run as a starter after the All-Star break last season, he averaged a 22.1/8.3/3.6 on 48% shooting.

Now, is Andray Blatche a sure thing? Oh, boy howdy, no way. He has regressed this season, and often displays atrocious shot selection. As Zach Lowe said in SI's The Point Forward: "I can’t think of a player Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy would like less than the current version of Andray Blatche. He isolates too much on offense, takes questionable shots outside the flow and is rarely interested in playing defense."

I mean, I really can't disagree with Zach, but also take a look at John Hollinger's player profile for Blatche from the preseason:
    "Blatche enjoyed a breakout of sorts once Jamison was traded, averaging [more than 22] points a game after the All-Star break. But the development that's even more encouraging was his late-season burst of passing. Blatche initially reacted to his go-to role with "Cool, now I can hog the ball like Gilbert" enthusiasm, but he had seven or more assists in five of the final 11 games … after zero in the first 71.

    Averaging 20 points and two assists, Blatche doesn't stand out. Averaging 20 and five assists? Now there's a quality offensive player. Blatche still needs to improve his shot selection, rely less on his jump shot and draw more fouls, but he's only 24 and it's his first extended run as a featured performer. It's been a rocky journey to this point, but if he can share the ball and improve his defensive focus, he can become a star."
A fair assessment of the ups and downs of Blatche's game, I think, but look at that last phrase: "he can become a star." Not definitely on the road to stardom, by any means, but maybe, he might become a star.

In the summer of 2012, there is no chance that Arenas will be a star, and there is no chance that Turkoglu will be a star, but there is a chance that a then-26-year-old Andray Blatche might be a star, even if it might hurt the team more in the short-term. Who knows, maybe integration into Stan Van Gundy's system would instill more discipline in Blatche's game. Rashard Lewis, for one, was a better defender in Orlando than he was in Seattle.

Acquiring Blatche would have made the Arenas acquisition more palatable to me. I feel like the Magic needed to take a gamble on young guys with potential as part of their bounty.


Let's go with a trusty Player A vs. Player B comparison for the next one. Here are per-36-minute stats for two players - which one would you rather have going forward:
          AGE FG% 3P% FT%  FTA   PTS REB AST  PER  MIN
Player A 28 39 32 84 3.5 17.8 3.4 5.7 13.6 (34.2)
Player B 22 45 40 75 6.3 19.0 5.3 6.6 18.7 (22.4)
Player A is Gilbert Arenas in 2010-11, Player B is Jerryd Bayless since he joined Toronto on Nov. 24, a ridiculously small 14-game, 314-minute sample, I grant you.

Is Jerryd Bayless a sure-thing future star? No way, he still has plenty to prove. Who would I rather have in 2010-11? Well, probably Arenas.

But who would I rather have over the next *five* years? Bayless, no question. Again, is there a chance that 30-year-old Arenas is a star in the summer of 2012? No way. Is there a chance that then-24-year-old Bayless - acquired along with Peja Stojakovic for just Jarrett Jack, David Andersen and Marcus Banks - could be a rising star in the summer of 2012? I think there is.

I know it sounds borderline crazy to talk up guys like Blatche and Bayless like this, but I feel like we learn over and over again to be careful about giving up too soon on young players. Michael Beasley is proving this in Minnesota, and I do believe that Portland should regret giving up guys like Bayless, Josh McRoberts and Martell Webster at a young age, especially for receiving so little in return.


The Magic have gambled on the NBA equivalent of comfort food, names which sound good and which could yield a modest improvement on 2010-11, but have no chance of addressing the real problems: their roster needs to be sound in the summer of 2012, and ideally, built to run with Dwight Howard all throughout the 2010s.

Given two imperfect choices of gambling on veterans or gambling on young players, I would have chosen to try to work in some young players with the potential to be solid pieces for the next decade, such as Bayless or Blatche or Sacramento's Jason Thompson (rumored to have been offered for Atlanta's Jeff Teague) or Terrence Williams (essentially given away by New Jersey to Houston after a promising finish to his rookie year in 2009-10), even though I acknowledge there are plenty of risks with those players.

Maybe you absolutely hate all of those young players listed above, and maybe they just weren't available to the Magic. Fair enough. I still think that sitting tight and waiting for a deal that could yield some younger potential stars would have been better. Orlando's assets - Carter (partially guaranteed expiring year in '11-12), Lewis (partially guaranteed expiring year in '12-13), Pietrus (player option for '11-12), and Gortat (26-year-old with potential to be a starting center) - were only going to get more valuable between now and 2012.

Getting some sort of young talent was a must. Instead, the Magic are now saddled with the more onerous contracts of Arenas (contract runs through 2014) and Turkoglu (partially guaranteed expiring year in '13-14). Hope you have a hell of a run in 2011, guys.

It should be noted that it's really a remarkable lack of trust shown by Dwight Howard in an Orlando front office which built a team able to compete for a championship in both 2009 and 2010. In a league of 30 teams, it's really hard to build a top-4 team, and that's what Otis Smith and company have done, even if the parts may be imperfect. Now, pressure from Dwight seems to have forced a short-sighted trade, and it's a reminder of what an underrated factor it is to have star players, such as Tim Duncan in San Antonio or Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, who have a commitment to and a trust in the long-term vision of a franchise.

Addendum: In today's link from the TrueHoop bullets (always appreciated), Henry Abbott notes that the Magic *did* acquire a young player with some intriguing potential, in Earl Clark. It's a fair point, though I suppose I was distinguishing players like Blatche, Bayless and Terrence Williams from Clark because the former three have produced impressive numbers at the NBA level at some point, even if only for relatively short periods. Clark has not done this to date, and I felt like the Magic's assets were good enough that they could attract a higher level of prospect, and he does feel like more of a throw-in than a guy Orlando was targeting. But hey, if Orlando can turn Clark into a player, then he's a player and it doesn't matter. I still think he has much more to prove.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Quick Note on the LeBron-Era Cavs

On this DEFCON 1 Day in Cleveland, I'd just like to offer a brief opinion on what I believe to be an incorrect piece of revisionist history. I was catching up on my NBA Today podcasts recently, when I heard the NBA Blogfather himself, Mr. Henry Abbott, casually voice this opinion, which seems to have become NBA conventional wisdom: a significant part of the reason that LeBron James left Cleveland was because the Cavaliers organization was unable to build a championship contender around him.

I'm not writing this to pick on Henry; he is but one of many who've expressed this opinion and, geez, he's probably the reason you've found our humble little corner of the basketball blogosphere. But I very strongly disagree with this reasoning.

Let's review quickly:
2006-07: Cavs go 50-32, lose NBA Finals to San Antonio, 4-0
So, the Cavaliers made the 2007 NBA Finals, but they weren't championship contenders? You know what: I'm actually going to cede this one, and say that they were NOT championship contenders in '06-07. Cleveland was lucky to get past a better Detroit team, thanks to LeBron's stunning Game 5 performance, and they were so thoroughly outclassed in the Finals that they weren't even in the same universe as the Spurs. As many as four other teams in the West - Dallas, Phoenix, Utah, Houston - were probably better than Cleveland as well. So I'll say it again: lucky more than contenders.

2007-08: Cavs go 45-37, lose Eastern Conference Semifinals to Boston, 4-3
In 2008, the Cavaliers took the eventual NBA champions perilously close to the brink, closer to defeat than any other playoff opponent, thanks in no small part to LeBron's 45 points in Game 7. But again, I'm going to say that they were NOT championship contenders in '07-08. Not with 45 wins in a league with eight teams at 54 wins or better, including six teams in the West.

2008-09: Cavs go 66-16, lose Eastern Conference Finals to Orlando, 4-2
OK, now we start to diverge. The 2008-09 Cavaliers won 66 games. SIXTY-SIX! LXVI!!! Only nine teams in NBA history have won more than 66 games. Of the 14 other teams which have won 65+ games, 12 have won the NBA championship. These Cavs swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and then lost a six-game series with several back-and-forth close games to a team which was two plays away from being up 3-2 in the Finals. This was absolutely, unequivocally, inarguably a championship-contending team. Of course, LeBron had to carry a disproportionate share of the load. I will grant that his teammates let him down vs. Orlando, as they were unable to knock down shots around him, while he turned in one of the most incredible individual playoff runs in NBA history. Still, there is no question in my mind that this was a team which could have won the championship, and was certainly in contention to do so.

2009-10: Cavs go 61-21, lose Eastern Conference Semifinals to Boston, 4-2
First of all, let's note that the 2009-10 Cavaliers had the best record in the league with 61 wins. In my book, any team that wins 60+ games is a championship contender. I will always believe that these Cavs were a better team than the Celtics team which missed a championship by a whisker. All the credit in the world to the Celtics for their superior heart, but I think they beat a better team. If the supporting cast was to blame in 2009, there was no one to blame in 2010 other than LeBron James, after his mysterious no-show in Game 5. I thought that GM Danny Ferry made some solid moves in the summer of 2009 to beef up Cleveland's depth, and also its size, to be able to better compete with Orlando and Los Angeles. I very strongly believe that this team could have won the championship if LeBron had played up to his abilities.

By the most liberal interpretation, the Cavs were championship contenders all four of these seasons. By the most conservative interpretation, they were unquestionably contenders in the last two seasons.

Further, I would argue that a reason Cleveland may not have been even better was that LeBron never committed to the Cavs for the long term, and the front office may have felt the pressure to make short-term moves to win immediately and appease LeBron.

Listen, I don't begrudge LeBron's right to make The Decision one bit. I truly believe that pretty much any franchise he would have joined would have been on the brink of championship contention just by adding him.

But to suggest that he had to leave Cleveland because he couldn't win a championship there is complete, outright fiction. Cleveland conceivably could have won in 2009 if the bounces had gone their way, they could have won in 2010 if LeBron had played -- and led -- better, and they conceivably could have built a longer-term dynasty if LeBron had made a longer-term commitment there.