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Friday, October 02, 2015

Genius Talks: Kobe Unplugged

On July 3, 2015, Jemele Hill conducted an interview with Kobe Bryant that BET aired under the title "Genius Talks: Kobe Unplugged." Hill's questions were predictably pro forma but some of Bryant's replies provided insight into his approach to basketball--and life. Here is a summary of some of Bryant's more thought-provoking comments.

Bryant said that he has tunnel vision about criticism, comparing his approach to Secretariat flying down the track with blinders on, unaware of anything happening on either side and only focused on running. I believe that Bryant has long adhered to this philosophy, though his staunch denial that he was even aware of public criticisms made about him early in his career seems a bit disingenuous; it is difficult for a public figure to be completely oblivious to how he is perceived and Bryant often seems very focused on refuting his doubters, which would be hard to do if he were not even aware of the criticisms.

Bryant declared that Phil Jackson's coaching gave him an advantage over Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and the league's other top guards. This is very interesting because Bryant is a straight-shooter both with praise and with criticism. Some people attempt to diminish Jackson's accomplishments by suggesting that many coaches could have won just as often as Jackson did if they had coached the same players but Bryant firmly believes that Jackson's approach gave him an advantage over the other great shooting guards of his era.

Bryant stated that failure does not exist because "the story continues." He added, "I play to figure things out. I play to learn something." Bryant believes that there is weakness involved with either playing with a fear of failure or playing with pressure to win and that the best method is to center himself and focus on the process. This is not easy to do but it makes a lot of sense; if you focus too much on what you have to lose (or gain) then you lose sight of what you have to do next.

As the story continues, one can learn from previous chapters. Bryant noted that failure in one setting just teaches you what you need to do better next time. Success teaches you what you should continue to do but you still have to evolve because the competition will adapt and evolve.

Bryant acknowledged that he pushes his teammates and he hates excuses. Bryant said that Shaquille O'Neal played "mean," which Bryant respects, but O'Neal also put his arm around guys and encouraged them. After his difficulties relating to O'Neal and some of his other teammates, Bryant "self-assessed" and learned not to be a jerk (though Bryant used a different word), which Bryant half-jokingly said means either changing or being the same way all the time so that people get used to it.

Examining his self assessment seriously, Bryant said that an important moment in his personal evolution was when Rick Fox told him during a team meeting, "We just want to feel like you are a part of us." Bryant admitted that he had never looked at things that way. Bryant began to "approach the game on a human level" and tried to connect with his teammates emotionally instead of just continually pushing himself and them.

Bryant believes that the most important thing for young players is to ask why things happen. If a screen/roll play results in an open shot in the corner a player should understand why that happened, what adjustments the other team might make and how to counter those adjustments so that someone else will be open if that first option is covered. This analysis reminded me of something that Phil Jackson once said about Bryant. Jackson called Bryant a "hard-headed learner" because Bryant would not do anything unless someone could explain to him why he should do it that way. This trait can be viewed negatively or positively but I think that it is positive. A smart person questions authority and questions what is happening as opposed to just passively accepting things. Bryant is "hard-headed" but in a good way--and if a coach cannot articulate a good reason for doing things a certain way that could be a sign that things should be done a different way.

Bryant concluded the interview by describing how he wants to be remembered after he retires: "I think it's that I reached my highest level of potential. As much as I could have accomplished I accomplished. I left no stone unturned. I tried and learned as much as I could to be the best possible player I could be to help my team be the best possible team it could be." Bryant recalled that when he was 16, he vowed to himself that he wanted to be a "talented overachiever" and he hopes now that this is his legacy, that he will be remembered as someone who did not rely just on talent but who also worked very hard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM


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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

King James Reigns in Houston (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 20, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

I began the final day of All-Star Weekend by attending the NBA Legends Brunch, which brings together an impressive array of basketball talent representing several generations of excellence. The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) held the seventh edition of this event on Sunday morning at the Hilton-Americas hotel. Emceed by TNT Studio host Ernie Johnson, this year's brunch recognized Cynthia Cooper, Marques Haynes, Calvin Murphy, Kenny Smith, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. There was a moment of silence in memory of the 14 NBRPA members who passed away in 2005 and the issuing of Commemorative Championship Awards to the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Houston Rockets teams.

NBA Commissioner David Stern began his remarks to the group by saying, "It's been a spectacular week" and he praised the retired players for demonstrating their "commitment to community" by their actions during the week, including hospital and school visits and charitable donations. Stern said, "Respect for the tradition of the game is so important" and concluded by noting, "If you forget where you came from you will never get where you are supposed to go."

When Cynthia Cooper received her award, she emphasized the perseverance that carried her from growing up in Watts to 10 years of playing pro basketball in Italy before winning four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets. Cooper told me that the brunch "is incredibly special. Just being one of the honorees and being a part of the NBRPA is incredible. I grew up watching a lot of the veteran talent in this room." I asked her who in particular she admired as a kid and she enthusiastically replied, "Norm Nixon, Magic and Jamaal Wilkes--all of the Lakers. I was an L.A. girl and grew up as a Lakers fan. Oscar Robertson is so incredible. I feel incredibly honored to be part of such a talented group."

She is pleased to be on the same list with Murphy: "Calvin is a great guy. What happened is unfortunate but it's good to see him bounce back. It's so wonderful for the NBA and NBRPA to honor Calvin for his contributions to the sport of basketball--not men's or women's but basketball in general." Some players struggle to adjust to retirement. Not Cooper. "The adjustment was easy for me because I have twins," Cooper said. "They keep me pretty busy. I have boy-girl twins and I've always put family first, so it wasn't hard for me to make the decision or the transition to go from being an active player to a retired player."

Haynes, who received the Humanitarian Award, paid tribute to the Rens, the Harlem Globetrotters and other pioneering black teams of the early 20th century. He reminded the audience that his 1948 Globetrotters defeated George Mikan and the world champion Minneapolis Lakers, debunking the idea that the Globetrotters were merely showmen. This achievement paved the way for the eventual desegregation of the NBA. Haynes said that there must be a dialogue established with the NBA to create a pension program for Globetrotters players who were denied the opportunity to play in the NBA. Haynes' fascinating stories exceeded his allotted time, leading to an awkward moment when Ernie Johnson came back to the podium while Haynes was still talking.

I spoke with Haynes after the brunch and he told me, "I tried to say as much as I possibly could. They wanted me to keep it to five minutes." But the pension issue is so important that Haynes had to bring it up in the hope that he could generate some movement on that front. "We've been around a long time. We call ourselves 'the survivors.' We were denied the opportunity to play pro ball for the same reason the Negro Leaguers were--the color of our skin. This is something that could be rectified by the NBA instituting a plan similar to if not identical to what Major League Baseball did for the Negro Leaguers."

During his acceptance speech, Kenny Smith described the feelings of anger and helplessness that swept over him when Hurricane Katrina cut its path of devastation through the Gulf Coast. He decided to do something immediate to help the storm's victims and within four days he organized a charity basketball game that was televised on TNT and raised significant funds to help the displaced people. Smith insisted that each NBA player who participated must donate at least $10,000 in goods, services or products and that the player must distribute those wares personally, not via his agents or handlers.

Calvin Murphy's remarks were tinged with great passion and emotion. He lost his job as a Rockets broadcaster in the wake of some allegations that proved to be baseless and Murphy noted how much he misses being on the air talking about basketball, a job he held for 13 years after his Hall of Fame playing career. Before he went on stage, I asked Murphy what this award means to him. He replied, "With what I've just been through in my life, this is perfect timing--to be honored by your peers--people who believe in you and want you to know that they believe in you; this is the first day of the rest of my life."

Julius Erving said that Clyde Drexler had the complete package as a player and that Drexler was part of the showmanship lineage that began with Bob Davies and Bob Cousy and continued with Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins. Erving praised Drexler's "special flair and elegance." Erving played against Drexler for several years but they did not have a chance to interact much until Drexler invited Erving, who was by then retired, to a ceremony in Portland honoring Drexler. At that time Erving found out how much Drexler had always admired Erving and a big brother-little brother bond formed between them. Erving suggested that just as he played second fiddle to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Drexler was the second-best player in the game behind Michael Jordan and that there is no shame in that. When Drexler spoke he dismissed the notion that Dr. J played second fiddle to anyone, observing that every kid wore Dr. J shoes and wanted to be like Dr. J.

Olajuwon was unable to attend the brunch, so Yao Ming accepted the award on his behalf, noting, "Houston has always had a tradition of great big men." Next, Shaquille O'Neal spoke about the achievements of George Mikan, who passed away in 2005, describing him as the first great NBA big man. O'Neal said that he paid for Mikan’s funeral because that is what a son should do for his father. Rudy Tomjanovich, who coached the Rockets to titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, thanked the NBRPA for honoring those teams and called to the stage several members of those teams who came to the brunch: Carl Herrera, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie and Clyde Drexler. The brunch concluded with a hysterical standup routine by Chris Tucker, who did impressions of O’Neal as a police officer, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and others.

Afterwards I spoke with more legends than I have space to quote here, but it is always special to hear from George Gervin. The Iceman was happy to see Murphy honored: "Murphy looked good. He has always been a strong individual. We all knew he would bounce back. It's so unfortunate that he had to go through things but that's what life is about: life is about recovery and he's doing that." With everything else that has gone on these past few days it is important to remember that All-Star Weekend does in fact culminate in the All-Star Game on Sunday night.

Some anticipated themes played out: the West players fed local hero Tracy McGrady the ball and for a while he was on pace to threaten Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record 42-point outburst. As Fred Carter might say, when I was inquiring earlier in the week about the possibility of Kobe Bryant breaking that mark I was in the right church but the wrong pew; Bryant finished with eight points, although he did play a strong floor game with a team-high eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals. He also hit a spectacular fadeaway 20-foot jumper to tie the game at 120 with 32.3 seconds left.

East Coach Flip Saunders did put all four Pistons on the court at the same time on a couple occasions, with Paul Pierce in the role of "fifth Beatle." The West led by as many as 21 and McGrady seemed to have MVP honors sewn up, but the East, spearheaded by the Pistons/Pierce combination toward the end of the third quarter, made a spirited rally and eventually took the lead. Then, LeBron James took over, finishing with 29 points, defending McGrady's attempt to tie the game at the end and becoming the youngest All-Star Game MVP, surpassing Oscar Robertson.

In his postgame remarks to the media, James made a very candid statement about McGrady's shot: "On his way up, I got a piece of his arm and a piece of the ball, which made it short." Reflecting on winning the MVP trophy, James said that individual accolades are not as important to him as being on a successful team.

Starting the day talking with the legendary Marques Haynes and finishing the day watching a potential legend in the making in LeBron James is the perfect way to conclude an intense and wonderful basketball weekend.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:55 AM


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Spud Helps Nate Steal the Show (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 19, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

Saturday began with the Eastern and Western Conference All-Stars practicing at the George R. Brown Convention Center. As Rasheed Wallace told me, All-Star practices are "for the fans. They get to see us do some dunks and hit some half-court shots."

The Eastern Conference took the floor first. Coach Flip Saunders had the players do the three-man weave, after which he split the team into two groups for a series of shooting contests to see which team could be the first to make 10 shots from various spots: the elbow area next to the free throw line, the baseline just inside the three-point line and then three-pointers from the wing. Next he walked the players through some basic screen/roll sets. Paul Pierce teamed with the four Piston representatives at one basket. I asked Rasheed Wallace if Pierce will be the "fifth Beatle" during the game or if he just randomly ended up teaming with Detroit's finest and he replied, "It was pretty random, but it worked out." The East practice concluded with the traditional half-court shot contest. LeBron James, Jermaine O'Neal and Richard Hamilton each made one half-court shot. Then the West All-Stars took the floor and the media availability period commenced.

Like yesterday, Kobe Bryant was swamped, but I managed to obtain "pole position" and ask a few questions of the NBA's leading scorer. The first thing that I wanted to know is if he thinks that he can break Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points. Bryant said, "In these games I just come out and read the flow of the game. The object is always to win, so whatever that means for me to do is what I’m going to do."

Bryant added that he was made aware of Chamberlain's record recently: "Yeah, someone asked me about that a couple days ago in L.A. I think that he has a story that he wants to write on Monday, so he's trying to lead me to get 43."

Since Bryant was criticized for his early departure from his 62 point game against Dallas and then also criticized for staying in the Toronto game to get 81 points, I asked him if he felt like he was in a no-win situation: "No, that's the essence of the sport. You can't please everybody. The people who like you are going to like you and the people who criticize are going to criticize. So it's important to just go out and be yourself and do what you think is best."

I suggested that since he received flak either way that perhaps the next time he has a big scoring game he might consider staying in and getting as many points as possible, but Bryant disagreed: "No, I do what I think is right. When I checked out of the game I didn't do it because I thought people would like it. I felt like it was the right thing to do. The game was in hand and we had another game coming up. There was no point in risking injury or tiring my legs out. I do it because I feel it's the right thing to do. I couldn't care less what anybody else says."

Chris Bosh told me that the best thing about being a first time All-Star is "getting to play with everybody, getting to see everybody and joking around. I've been dreaming about this a long time and it came true."

When the media availability period concluded, coach Avery Johnson and the West All-Stars began their practice session. Johnson explained that he was not going to put in anything too complicated but that he just wanted to make sure that there was "some organization" to what the team does on Sunday.
He walked the team through some basic, standard NBA sets. If you see Steve Nash or Tony Parker flapping a hand over their head while dribbling downcourt then the West is going to run "floppy up" or "floppy down" (depending on whether they point their hand up or down). Floppy up means that when the baseline screens are set the two players that are using the screens will emerge from opposite sides, while in floppy down the players will both come out on the same side, one after the other.

The West also had several shooting contests and the mood was more lively than it was during the East's practice. First team to make 11 shots won and the contests pitted the starters versus the reserves. Locations included the elbow area, a bank shot contest from the mid post (Johnson called this the "Tim Duncan" drill and, appropriately enough, Duncan and the starters won that one) and a baseline shot inside the three-point line. Then Johnson involved the crowd, assigning one side's fans the responsibility of counting out loud for the starters' makes while the other side kept track of the reserves' progress. The reserves won two out of three contests in this format.

Johnson also walked the team through some basic pick-and-roll defenses and two out-of-bounds plays--one to set up for an open two-point attempt and one to spring open a player for a three-point shot. Johnson announced that he plans to play a lineup of five seven-footers for a couple minutes, possibly when Saunders puts in all four Pistons so that Chauncey Billups has to guard one of them.

Bryant was the only West All-Star to make a half-court shot before the practice ended.

During the time between the end of the All-Star practices and the beginning of the All-Star Saturday night contests, I was able to walk through the Jam Session and see some other exhibits. Artist Kelly Sullivan has a "finger smear" painting display consisting of huge basketball themed drawings that were commissioned by Radio Shack, a Jam Session sponsor. Fans can dab paint on a finger and take part in finishing the artwork. She explained to me that "finger smear" is less intimidating to some people than trying to paint with a brush. Ian Naismith stopped by her exhibit earlier and participated in the project, signing his name by his "finger smear."

I'll go light on describing the All-Star Saturday night action since TNT and SportsCenter are providing saturation coverage. The Spurs won the Shooting Stars contest in a record 25.1 seconds. Their secret weapon? Steve Kerr was wearing his 13-year-old son's LeBron James shoes because he forgot to pack his own sneakers.

Dwyane Wade outdueled James to win the Skills Challenge and Dirk Nowitzki won the Three Point Shootout, defeating Gilbert Arenas and Ray Allen in the final round.

Slam Dunk Contest judges Elvin Hayes, Kenny Smith, Rudy Tomjanovich, Moses Malone and Clyde Drexler worked overtime because Nate Robinson and Andre Iguodala battled to a tie and had to decide the title with the contest's first ever "dunk-off." Iguodala scored two perfect 50s in his first four dunks, but Robinson won 47-46 in the "dunk-off" and is the 2006 Slam Dunk champion. Iguodala's best dunk came when teammate Allen Iverson tossed the ball off the back of the backboard and Iguodala swooped in, caught the ball and soared underneath the backboard for a reverse dunk; Robinson electrified the crowd and forced the "dunk-off" by leaping over Spud Webb for a powerful slam.

Next I headed to the Houston Marriott-Medical Center, site of the second annual ABA "Ole School" Reunion. I wrote about the first ABA Reunion last year for HoopsHype and when I arrived I saw several familiar faces, including organizer Fatty Taylor, "Goo" Kennedy, Warren Jabali and Al Smith. I also had an opportunity to speak with several ABA players who I did not get a chance to meet before, including Gus Gerard, George Tinsley and Ollie Taylor. Gerard played on the 1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis team that pulled off one of the great upsets in pro basketball history by defeating Dr. J and the defending champion New York Nets in the 1975 ABA playoffs.

Tinsley is a successful entrepreneur who runs a chain of food and beverage franchises in Florida. He told me that he is the "unofficial secretary" between the National Basketball Retired Players Association and many retired players who are not active in the group. He conveys to them information from the NBRPA and relays their feedback to the group. Tinsley also has worked as a coach, both in his native Kentucky and in Florida; two of his former players are Darrell Griffith and Tracy McGrady

Before Ollie Taylor said anything about his own career, he had a very important message to convey: "The ABA existed before Spencer Haywood, but the storyline really begins with him because he was the first one to challenge the undergraduate rule, paving the way for all these guys who are high school players or undergraduates to come into the NBA and make the kind of money that they are making. Spencer went through a lot of stuff that people don't realize--escorted off of the court, being locked out of the arenas and stuff like that (while his case was making its way through the courts and various injunctions restricted him from playing). Spencer was only 19-20 years old and going through a real trauma in his life and questioning whether or not he should continue to battle. He's not a guy who's going to toot his own horn but, when you see the story of 'Glory Road,' that's one story but there is another story and it is a very important story because eventually the ABA became the cornerstone for the NBA. The dominant players after the merger were ABA players--George Gervin, Dr. J, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone. There is a real, untold story there and I don't think that many people realize that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 AM


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Honoring the Past, Anticipating the Future (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 18, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

My first stop on Friday was the Hilton-Americas Hotel, site of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame press conference announcing the 2006 Finalists for election. Dick Stockton stood on a stage flanked by Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Bill Walton, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Gail Goodrich, David Thompson, Clyde Drexler and Moses Malone and read off each of the names of the 16 Finalists, followed by brief career summaries. Ten candidates were nominated by the North American Screening Committee--players Charles Barkley, Ralph Sampson, Chet Walker, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars and Dominique Wilkins, coaches Don Nelson and Gene Keady and contributors David Gavitt and Dick Vitale. The Women's Screening Committee selected coaches Van Chancellor and Geno Auriemma, the International Screening Committee chose coaches Pedro Ferrandiz and Sandro Gamba and the Veterans Screening Committee tapped player John Isaacs and contributor Ben Kerner. The final vote takes place later in the year and the results will be announced on April 3 during Final Four weekend; at least 18 votes from the 24 member Honors Committee are required to earn induction.

When Stockton concluded, Barkley came to the podium and addressed the assembled media, saying "Moses Malone was most influential in my career" while also acknowledging guidance provided by Adrian Dantley and John Drew. He thanked the Hall of Famers for taking the time to come to the event and offered much respect to Oscar Robertson, saying that there is a "short list" of players who can legitimately be considered for the title of greatest ever: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

After Barkley's remarks, the Hall of Famers were available for media interviews. Barkley was the center of attention, attracting a media horde three rows deep packed tightly around him, jockeying for position and lobbing questions toward him. Asked about the difference between playing in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996, Barkley noted that in 1992 the players from other countries did not mind losing by 40 or 50 points as long as they received some signed jerseys or shoes but by 1996 the foreign players were telling Barkley where he could stick the shoes--the intimidation factor was gone and Barkley knew then that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. lost to a foreign team.

I asked Drexler if he thinks that Kobe Bryant has a realistic shot to break Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points. He thinks that this is very unlikely because of the energy expenditure it would require and because it is difficult for one player to cast up so many shots in an All-Star Game. When I mentioned that Michael Jordan once had 40 points in an All-Star Game, Drexler correctly noted that that took place in Jordan's home city of Chicago and that when you are playing in your home city, the other players are more apt to feed you the ball.

Next came the media availability sessions for the All-Star Saturday participants, followed by the All-Stars themselves. That rapidly turned into a three-ring--or, to be precise, dozen-plus table--circus. The crowd at Kobe Bryant's table dwarfed the one that had been around Barkley and some media members seemed to be employing martial arts maneuvers in an effort to cut in front of others and get better access. Of course, that meant that it was the perfect time to talk to other players.

Slam-dunk contestant Hakim Warrick told me that Dr. J was his favorite dunk artist as a kid; his pick among recent dunkers is Vince Carter: "He raised the bar," Warrick said. He noted that his Memphis teammate Shane Battier has been offering unsolicited dunk contest advice and claims to have won a dunk contest in the county where he grew up. Warrick agreed with me that he needs to see some footage of that before he listens to Battier, who is not known as a high flyer.

Shooting Stars contestant Steve Kerr has done no preparation for the event other than playing in some pickup games but believes that shooting, like riding a bike, is something that you never forget how to do. I asked him who he thinks will win the Three Point Shootout and he chose Ray Allen. Allen, however, does not consider himself the favorite and thinks that any of the contestants could be hot or cold on a given night. He told me that he does not have a strategy for the contest and does not consider contest shooting to be fundamentally different from game shooting, although he noted that some players rush because they don't think that they will have enough time to shoot all of the basketballs.

Vince Carter likes Josh Smith's chances to defend his Slam Dunk title, but he added that he thinks most people do not really know how well Nate Robinson can dunk; Carter played against him in the preseason and was very impressed. One reporter noted that this was his first All-Star Weekend and asked Carter, a veteran All-Star, to tell him one "do" and one "don't." Carter's "do" was to see the Slam Dunk Contest in person to fully appreciate it. He drew some laughs when he hesitated before offering his "don't," finally saying, "Don't try to go to every party because you might miss the game." Rasheed Wallace likes Warrick, who he calls "my Philly boy," to win the Slam Dunk Contest.

Now that it is all but impossible for Detroit to win 70 games, I asked Detroit assistant coach (and a player on the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 games) Ron Harper if he thought that any team would ever win 70. He doubts it, saying that the Pistons faltered because too much was made of it too soon. He thinks that it just has to happen, that you can't set it as a goal at the start of the year. I also asked him to name some players who simply have to be on TNT's Next 10 List (a supplement to the 50 Greatest Players List from 1996) and he chose Bob McAdoo and Dominique Wilkins. He also mentioned Sidney Moncrief.

At 5 p.m. the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian National Men's Basketball Team Foundation held a "Lithuanian Basketball Party" at the Hilton-Americas. The back wall featured a big screen showing footage of great Lithuanian stars, many of whom are quite familiar to American fans, including NBA players Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis (the first Lithuanian in the NBA) and Sarunas Jasikevicius.

The wall to the left as you entered the party had giant posters of numerous Lithuanian stars with NBA ties plus one of Donn Nelson, son of Hall of Fame Finalist Don Nelson, who has worked with the Lithuanian national team since 1992. Regimantas Silinskas entertained the partygoers by playing a traditional Lithuanian instrument known as a skrabalai (wooden bells), which bears some resemblance to a xylophone that is standing upright instead of flat. Later, Zilvinas Zvagulis and Irena Starosaite performed Lithuanian folk music.

NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBA Vice President for International Basketball Operations Kim Bohuny each received The Cross Commander of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. Both gave brief speeches discussing the longstanding ties between the NBA and Lithuanian basketball. Bohuny recalled that she brought Lithuanian sharpshooter Rimas Kurtinaitis to the 1989 All-Star Game in Houston for the Three Point Shootout. He was jet lagged and fared poorly in the event, but when the two of them went to a bar afterward no one knew who he was and they played Pop-a-Shot for drinks, wiping out everybody in the place. Detroit coach Flip Saunders, Dallas assistant coach Del Harris, Donn Nelson and Rolando Blackman and TNT's Craig Sager were among those in attendance.

Blackman's favorite All-Star moment is obviously his two free throws with no time left in regulation to send the 1987 game to overtime. Isiah Thomas memorably tried to distract Blackman before he went to the free throw line; Blackman told me that Isiah was just messing around but to him those free throws were "life and death." He believes that making them was a big milestone in his career. As he declared while the ball was going through the hoop, "Confidence, baby, confidence."

Many people wanted to get their picture taken with Manute Bol when he arrived. He walks with a cane now but seemed to be in good spirits, particularly when he exchanged a warm greeting with Marciulionis, his Golden State teammate.

It is only a short walk from the Hilton-Americas to the Toyota Center and I easily arrived in time to see the Rookie Challenge. Andre Iguodala offered a possible preview of tomorrow's Slam Dunk Contest, delivering nine dunks en route to 30 points and MVP honors in a 106-96 victory for the Sophomores over the Rookies. In his postgame remarks, winning coach Del Harris noted that he was pleased not only with the victory but the fact that this contest more closely resembled a real game than many previous Rookie Challenges, which have all too often degenerated into sloppy play. Harris noted that this is one of the few times that a team has been held below 100 points in the Challenge.

After the game I headed over to the 1001 McKinney Building, site of the Air Jordan XXI Launch Party. In honor of the 21st edition of Air Jordans, Michael Jordan brought in three-time Grammy winner John Legend and a host of other performers to entertain some of the most well-known figures in sports and entertainment. At the end of the evening, a special auction of items--including a rare set of one pair of each of the 21 Jordan shoes--was held to benefit Habitat for Humanity Relief for Hurricane Katrina.

I received a media credential for this event. Unfortunately, most of the attending players and celebrities chose not to be interviewed by the assembled media, which would seem to defeat the purpose of assembling us there in the first place. As a writer for People Magazine commented to me, no one wants to read an article listing the names of a bunch of people who refused to talk. I'll leave it to People to list their names if they so choose.

I did get a chance to ask Antoine Walker some questions. He told me that the All-Star event that he is most looking forward to is the Slam Dunk Contest. He expects Josh Smith to repeat as champion but added, "Don't sleep on Iguodala." Walker had just seen Iguodala's Rookie Challenge performance and was very impressed. As for the Three Point Shootout, Walker said, "I've got to go with Chicago--Quentin Richardson, the defending champion.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM


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Observations from Barkley and Naismith (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 17, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below. 

All-Star Weekend actually began several days before most of the players, celebrities and fans arrived in Houston. The NBA Read to Achieve Caravan, led by Bob Lanier, conducted Reading Timeouts at three Houston elementary schools on Monday. Three Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA fitness clinics were held on Tuesday and on Wednesday the NBA and NBA Players Association partnered with Habitat for Humanity to break ground on the first of two houses that they will build this week. Thursday activities included an NBA Cares hospital visit and the eighth National Wheelchair Basketball Association All-Star Classic at the NBA All-Star Jam Session, which is located in the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The 13th NBA All-Star Jam Session opened to the public at 4 p.m. on Thursday and it will be open daily starting at 9 a.m., Friday through Monday. It features clinics, contests, basketball collectibles for sale and the opportunity to get autographs from NBA players and legends.

Thursday night it was also the site for TNT's studio show featuring Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith (who left after the halftime of the first game to go host his party). Fans ringed the set to take pictures and get autographs. After the halftime show for the Chicago-Philadelphia game, I had the opportunity to speak with Barkley as he and the rest of the TNT group relaxed in their trailer to watch the second half of the game.

I had introduced myself to Barkley a few minutes before the interview, but wasn't sure that he heard what I was saying with all of the Jam Session commotion, so when I came into the trailer I introduced myself again. Barkley, looking serious, remarked that I had just told him that a minute ago and he hadn't forgotten my name. When I mentioned the noise outside, he retorted that he had read my name tag also. Then he paused a beat and said, "Relax, man. I'm just messing with you."

With my "initiation" out of the way, I asked Barkley what he is most looking forward to this weekend. He answered, "I get nominated for the Hall of Fame tomorrow, so that makes it a little bit more special for me. I would be disingenuous if I said that I am thinking about something else. I am really honored and flattered. It's going to be pretty special. This is the first time that I've been eligible and when my name is mentioned tomorrow it’s going to be special."

I said that I thought that his induction is a foregone conclusion and Barkley replied, "That would be cocky of me to say. This is the first time that I've been eligible and when my name is mentioned tomorrow it's going to be very special. Obviously I feel good about my chances, but it's a long, drawn-out process. I don't even know when they do the voting, but everything starts tomorrow."

Ernie Johnson walked by and deadpanned, "You didn't hear?" and Barkley quipped, "Me and Dominique both got left off?"

I asked Barkley what his favorite All-Star memories are and he said, "The first time that I played, in Seattle, that's special--the first time is always special--and the time that I received the MVP (1991)."

Naturally, Barkley can't reveal who TNT's "Next 10"-–their additions to the 50 Greatest Players List--will be but I asked him to speak a little about Bob McAdoo, the subject of my recent HoopsHype.com article and a teammate of his in 1985-86. Barkley said, "I can't remember, but I think that I put McAdoo on my next 10...He was nice and quiet. I grew up watching him as a little kid. He was a prolific jump shooter. It's pretty cool to play with somebody you watched as a little kid."

Barkley had not seen Michael Jordan's new shoe commercial, so we stopped talking when it came on the air. Before it came on, Miller told Barkley that it was good and that Barkley should watch it. After seeing it, Barkley agreed and added that he is not a big fan of the "LeBrons" commercial: "Let him talk and show his personality. I don't know what they're doing with his commercials--he's dressed up as his grandfather. He needs to showcase his personality. He's a terrific player (but) when you are out there to represent your league and sell products you have to let people get to know you."

Barkley is a fan of Bob Lanier, another player who did not make the 50 Greatest Players List but was nominated for TNT's Next 10: "I know Bob personally. He lives in Arizona. Obviously, he was a great, great, great player, but the one thing that I'll say about Bob is that Bob is one of the nicest men I've met in my life, period. He's a wonderful person. You can look at his stats and the fact that he's in the Hall of Fame and see that he was a great player. Living in Phoenix, I've gotten to know him really well and he's just a wonderful person."

After talking with Barkley, I walked through the Hall of Fame exhibition at Jam Session, which displayed items ranging from a 1974-75 ABA basketball to a pair of Dr. J's shoes to a photo of Michael Jordan playing against Chris Mullin in the 1982 Hall of Fame tipoff classic and much more.

My next stop was a display organized by the Naismith International Basketball Foundation. Sitting behind the counter was none other than Ian Naismith, the non-profit organization's founding director and the grandson of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Ian Naismith opened up a bulletproof briefcase and showed me the original 13 rules of basketball that were typed up by his grandfather. The Foundation is offering the document for sale, but with some important stipulations: the buyer must donate it to the Smithsonian Institution and the funds must go to support children's charities.

Naismith told me that he gets varying reactions when people hear his last name, depending on how well versed they are in basketball history. My first thought was to wonder if he had a chance to talk to his grandfather about inventing basketball.

This is what he told me: "I was born in Dallas, Texas and my grandfather lived in Lawrence, Kansas for 41 years after he invented the game. When I was born he took a train from Lawrence, Kansas to Dallas and baptized me. He stayed for three days with my parents and then he went home and passed away three months later. I didn't get to know him, but he baptized me, which is very important to me. He put his hands on my head and the family joke is that he called me the first dribbler."

Naismith is conducting a 43-city tour to spread the word about his Foundation and to promote good sportsmanship. He feels very passionately about how the game should be played and since 1998 the Foundation has honored individuals and groups who represent the game positively. Michael Jordan was the first player who won the award; winners are selected by a nine-member committee whose names are not divulged to the public. The Naismith Good Sportsmanship Tour is in its fifth year and has made stops at each All-Star Game and Final Four during this time. Over 1.5 million visitors have seen it. Naismith says that his grandfather stood for "respect, dignity, positive role-modeling and teamwork. Sportsmanship was his biggest thing." He cited Steve Nash, Tim Duncan and John Stockton as three players who embody these traits.

I couldn't have asked for a better start to All-Star Weekend than talking to Charles Barkley and Ian Naismith. Here are some things that I am looking forward to seeing during the rest of the weekend:

*The moment when Flip Saunders puts four Detroit Pistons on the court at the same time facing off against the Western Conference’s best players.

*Watching 5-9 Nate Robinson in the Slam Dunk Contest. Many people are down on this event, saying that it is played out, but Robinson will almost certainly bring the fans out of their seats. It is unfortunate that we won't get to see Kobe, Vince or LeBron but Andre Iguodala, Hakim Warrick and defending champion Josh Smith are all outstanding dunkers.

*Will Kobe Bryant make a run a Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points?

*Watching Ray Allen in the Three-Point Shootout. Allen has the game's sweetest, most effortless looking shooting stroke from deep--it's like watching a healthy Ken Griffey, Jr. swing a baseball bat.

*A moment or play that no one predicted--and no one will ever forget.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM


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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2005 NBA All-Star Game Media Availability Session With Kobe Bryant: "The Truth Always Comes Out"

Many Kobe Bryant interview sessions get sidetracked by non-basketball issues. This is not one of them. During the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend media availability periods, Kobe Bryant offered his thoughts on many basketball related subjects. This transcript was originally published on March 1, 2005 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted it in its entirety below.

In the game in Cleveland (Bryant's first game back on February 13, 2005 after missing 14 games because of a severely sprained ankle) you were still getting your legs under you in terms of jumping and finishing. How much better did you feel in the game in Utah (February 15, 2005) when you went out and got 40 points?

Kobe Bryant: Oh, man, it was night and day. The game in Cleveland, that was only the second time that I had played in like a month. So I missed a lot of easy shots, a lot of layups. Defensively I had to get my rhythm. Against Utah my legs felt great. It felt like it just came back. We've done such a good job throughout the injury-training, lifting weights, doing rehab.

What kind of exercises are you doing?

KB: It's a myriad of things. We have a great staff. Obviously, we have (trainer) Gary Vitti, who treats the injury; we have (physiotherapist) Alex McKechnie, who does a lot of physical rehabilitation work; we have Joe Carbone, our strength coach. Between the three of them--and (director of athletic performance) Chip Schaefer-- we have been able to devise a scheme for me to get back to full throttle.

Do you still have to ice the ankle and treat it post game more than you did before the injury?

KB: Yes. I pack it in ice and continue to keep it moving so it doesn't stiffen up. So, for example, when I'm out of the game, you'll see me constantly moving it around so it stays loose.

Do you do the exercise in which you spell out the letters of the alphabet with that foot?

KB: (eyes widen a bit in recognition) Yes. That's what I do. When I sit on the bench, that's what I do. Spell out the alphabet.

That's a great exercise for sprained ankles.

KB: Yeah. I'm glad I know my ABCs. (laughs)

What's your favorite dunk from the 1976 Slam Dunk Contest?

KB: Wow. There are so many of them. The one that gets replayed over and over is obviously Julius' dunk from the free throw line. I think that is the most memorable one just because it revolutionized the dunk contest. It was just the momentum of it, of who Dr. J was and who he became, that now when you go back in time and you see that free throw line dunk it makes it that much grander.

He milked the drama of it, because he took those long strides to the other side of the court before the dunk.

KB: He worked the crowd there. He was an actor. He built up the drama and then took off, which just culminated it.

Have you seen Thompson's 360 from the left baseline?

KB: Oh, of course. Of course.

What do you think of that?

KB: I think it was sick.

What was the best advice that you received when you made the jump from high school to the NBA?

KB: KG just told me to have fun. Just enjoy yourself. People are going to be pulling at you from all sides and placing expectations on you. Just block that out. Go out there and have fun.

How have you embraced the challenge of a new era in Los Angeles and the burden that has been put on your shoulders?

KB: I think that we have embraced it and we look forward to this challenge. At first it took a little while for the people of Los Angeles to get used to it because they are used to being on top for so long. But there is something about starting down at the bottom again and working your way back to the top that is really appealing to people. You put on your hard hat and go to work. I think that it is refreshing.

Is it as much of a challenge to fight for the final playoff spot as it was to fight for the championship?

KB: The challenges are in essence the same. Once you get to the top, the hard work becomes staying on top. But you have to work to get there. Sometimes it is really, really tough to get over that hump. You saw Minnesota last year was able to get over that hump and this year it is a struggle for them. It is a work in progress. You always have to be on edge. You always have to take every practice, every game, like it is your last.

It's tough. If we weren't so optimistic, we'd think that the second half of the season is going to be the absolute pits. But we look forward to this challenge. When your back is against the wall, you have no other option but to come out swinging. We have to approach every practice in an extremely detailed and extremely methodical manner.

Your team is increasingly using a little more of the triangle all the time. How do you feel about the constitution of this team to run the triangle?

KB: We're doing a good job. It's tough because we're trying to learn it on the fly. You know how hard it is to learn it when you have training camp. We're doing a good job, though. Got a call from Tex (Winter) and he told us that we're doing well. That's the biggest compliment in the world, when you get a compliment from Tex. Tex is such a great basketball mind. When he gives you a compliment it really warms up your heart.

Do you ever call him?

KB: He came down early in the season and then he came again recently, maybe it was two and a half weeks ago. We exchanged numbers. I've called him several times since then. I love Tex. If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around.

What specifically is different about it?

KB: He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda.

A Jedi master.

KB: I'm telling you, it's just incredible.

Tex has always had testy exchanges with the people he's coached. When you had your testy exchanges with him people didn't quite understand that. Why is that?

KB: I don't know. It doesn't really matter what they think. It's obvious to see that when we had those exchanges, people just really blew it out of proportion. If it were true (that there is friction), Tex and I would not be as close as we are today

So the press somehow got that distorted?

KB: Yeah, it usually shakes out that way. The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 AM


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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Three-Time MVP Moses Malone Dies Unexpectedly at Age 60

Moses Malone and Julius Erving at the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver
(photo copyright David Friedman)

This has been a terrible recent period for the NBA family. Darryl Dawkins passed away less than three weeks ago, Roy Marble just succumbed to his battle with cancer, Flip Saunders is taking a leave of absence to fight cancer and it has just been reported that Moses Malone (who replaced Dawkins at center for the Philadelphia 76ers) passed away. Malone jumped straight from Petersburg (Va.) High School to the ABA in 1974 and he enjoyed a 21 year career during which he became one of the most decorated players in pro basketball history, winning three regular season MVPs (1979, 1982-83), one NBA Finals MVP (1983) and six rebounding titles (1979, 1981-85). 

Malone made the All-Star team 13 times (once in the ABA and 12 times in the NBA), earned eight All-NBA Team selections (including four All-NBA First Team honors) and was twice chosen for the All-Defensive Team. Malone led the league in total offensive rebounds a record nine times (this statistic has been charted since 1967-68 in the ABA and since 1973-74 in the ABA). He ranks third in pro basketball history (behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell) with 17,834 career rebounds and he ranks seventh in pro basketball history with 29,580 career points.

The numbers and honors speak to Malone's dominance, durability and dedication but you had to see him play to fully appreciate his impact. Malone was not flashy but he was relentless, energetic and powerful. He was the best rebounder of his era by far and the most dominant inside player in the NBA from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s. He was also a tremendous scorer who finished in the top five in that category five times, including two times as the runner-up (27.8 ppg in 1980-81 and a career-high 31.1 ppg in 1981-82). Although best known for his rebounding and scoring prowess, Malone was an above average defensive player as well.

Malone posted his best individual statistics during his six year run with the Houston Rockets and he carried the Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals but he will always be most remembered for his four year stint with the Philadelphia 76ers. When Malone arrived in Philadelphia in 1982, the 76ers had posted the best overall regular season in the league since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger and had made it to the NBA Finals three times but they could not get over the hump. The 76ers had no answer in the middle for Hall of Fame centers like Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Malone changed all of that. Malone teamed up with Julius Erving to form one of the best single season one-two punches in pro basketball history as the 76ers made a run at 70 wins before settling in at 65-17. During the playoffs, they were even more dominant, setting a record by going 12-1, punctuated by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers.

Injuries and aging ensured that the 1983 championship represented the culmination of the Julius Erving era as opposed to the start of a dynasty but for a one season stretch that starting five was as good as any that has ever been assembled: Malone (the 1982 MVP who went on to win the 1983 MVP) and Erving (the 1981 MVP) had great chemistry together, point guard Maurice Cheeks was a top notch playmaker, defender and efficient shooter, shooting guard Andrew Toney was headed for the Hall of Fame before injuries shortened his career and power forward Marc Iavaroni did all of the dirty work (five-time All-Star Bobby Jones ranked fifth on the team in minutes played, providing firepower of the bench en route to capturing the 1983 Sixth Man of the Year Award).

The last hurrah for the Malone-Erving 76ers came in 1984-85, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling in five games to the Boston Celtics. Near the end of the 1985-86 season, Malone suffered an orbital bone fracture that forced him to miss the playoffs. The 76ers traded Malone prior to the 1986-87 campaign, which turned out to be Erving's "Farewell Tour," and in the nearly 30 years since that time the 76ers have never come close to matching the sustained success that they enjoyed during Erving's prime.

On a personal note, I met Malone during the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver. Malone was famously reticent in his dealings with the media and he declined my request for an interview--but he agreed to let me take a photo of him alongside Erving (see above). I will always treasure the memory of sharing that moment with the two stars of the 1983 NBA champions and I think that the arm in arm pose aptly captures the feelings of camaraderie that the two men shared. When Erving and Malone teamed up it was never about who was the man but only about one thing: winning the title together. It is a shame that they did not join forces about five years earlier, because it would have been a sight to behold if they had been paired during their primes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:06 PM


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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Kobe Bryant: Perception Versus Reality

This article was originally published on February 25, 2005 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

Kobe Bryant (27.8 ppg, 6.6 apg and 6.2 rpg), LeBron James (25.4 ppg, 7.7 apg and 7.1 rpg) and Dwyane Wade (23.5 ppg, 7.3 apg and 5.2 rpg) are three of the top perimeter players in the NBA. Each ranks in the top ten in scoring and is a nightly triple-double threat, yet James and Wade are lauded for making their teammates better while Bryant has been widely labeled as selfish. Among those who consider that criticism unfair is veteran NBA player, assistant coach and head coach Fred Carter, who currently analyzes games for NBA TV.

"For some people perception is reality," Carter said. "The echoed word becomes the accepted word. It becomes the choice phrase. But he won titles and he does get the assists. He does get steals and he does get blocks. He's not a guy who just plays on the offensive end. What happens is that people have the tendency to echo the words of everyone else. It's unfortunate."

Bryant's field goal percentage is hovering around the .410 mark, which would be a career low. This is the main statistical ax that critics grind against Bryant, saying that he is more focused on winning the scoring title than making his team better. But that argument has flaws, according to Carter. "Any time a guy is a volume-shooting guy like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, the shooting percentage is going to be down because they attract a lot more defensive attention. Spot-up shooters or stand-still shooters, plays are run for them and that's basically all they can do, spot up and shoot, so they get open shots and knock them down. People kind of get confused with field goal percentages and the quality of the baskets that you make. Kobe makes a lot of quality baskets. I don't look at his field goal percentage. I look at the productivity of his shots in terms of the fourth quarter and what shots he makes then."

Bob Chaikin, whose fine statistical research can be found at bballsports.com, ranks shooting efficiency with a statistic called scoring field goal percentage. The formula is: (Two point field goals made + 1.5 X Three point field goals made + Free throws made/2) / (Field goals attempted + Free throws attempted/2). This method provides a more complete picture than field goal percentage does because it accounts for the added value of three-pointers made plus the points produced by drawing fouls and making free throws.

James (.491) and Wade (.478) have better field goal percentages than Bryant does, but neither makes as many three-pointers or free throws as Bryant. Consequently, as of February 22, Bryant's scoring field goal percentage of .529 is not much worse than James' .551 and Wade's .544.

The league average for scoring field goal percentage is around .520, a figure that Bryant and each of the Laker starters exceed. Bryant is not merely padding his individual scoring numbers. The defensive attention that he attracts and his playmaking skills are leading the team to an above average level of shooting efficiency. This is significant, especially considering that the other four starters are Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, none of whom has played in even one All-Star Game. Meanwhile, James and Wade are each teamed with All-Star centers. Laker center Mihm, a career journeyman, has benefited greatly playing alongside Bryant, enjoying career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists. In addition to their above average scoring field goal percentages, each Laker starter (other than Bryant) is also posting a career high in traditional field goal percentage.
NBA analyst Fred Carter notes that by getting to the free throw line frequently Bryant does not just enhance his individual statistics, but he also creates more free throw opportunities for his teammates and causes foul trouble for the opposing team.

"When Kobe is out of the offense the Lakers do not get into the bonus as quickly as they normally do. Check free throws attempted and see how they were with Kobe playing versus now (when Kobe missed 14 games)."

Another area worth examining is versatility. One would expect that a selfish player does nothing but shoot. Nine NBA players have amassed triple doubles this season. Bryant and Chris Webber are tied for second with four, trailing only Jason Kidd's five. James has two and Wade has one. James has 18 double doubles, while Wade has 13 and Bryant 12.

Bryant's critics are quick to counter that he leads the league in turnovers at 4.4 per game, but Wade ranks second at 4.2 and James is seventh at 3.2. MVP candidate and league assists leader Steve Nash ranks eighth at 3.1. Turnovers have only been recorded by the NBA since 1977-78, but since that time it has been common for great playmakers such as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas to rank among the league leaders in this category. Players who commit a lot of turnovers generally fall into one of two categories: great players who have tremendous scoring/playmaking responsibilities and big men with bad hands.

Ultimately, making one's team better is reflected in wins and losses and most NBA games are decided down the stretch. While great players strive to keep their teammates involved throughout the game, in the closing moments it is often necessary to take over the game. Tracy McGrady's 13 points in the final 35 seconds to defeat the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season are perhaps the ultimate recent example of this.

Bryant consistently elevates his game in clutch situations and this year he is leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring at over 8.5 ppg. Carter says that Bryant has two traits that enable him to thrive in crucial moments. "One is competitiveness. He stays at a high level of competitiveness. Also, energy level. A lot of players get tired (but) the great players don't get tired. They have a special level of energy; they can tap that source and they can still stay at a high level of efficiency and proficiency. That's Kobe Bryant; he is able to do that. MJ was the same way. There are certain players who can raise their energy level for the fourth period and Kobe Bryant can do that."

Of course, offense is only part of the game. Second-year players James and Wade have each made notable progress this season on the defensive end, but Bryant has already made the All-Defensive Team five times during his career, including three First Team selections. Bryant made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team each of the last two seasons.

When Bryant missed 14 games due to a severe right ankle sprain, the Lakers struggled to a 6-8 mark and his absence was felt at least as much on defense as on offense, Laker coach Frank Hamblen points out: "He is one of those guys who is talking defensively and helping defensively. The way he plays, as hard as he plays, the other guys feed off that."

TNT analyst Charles Barkley has mentioned on several occasions that he believes there are only three true superstars in the NBA: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. A glance at the Western Conference standings shows that Garnett's Timberwolves and Bryant's Lakers are among the teams fighting for the final playoff spot. Garnett has two former All-Stars playing beside him and basically the same nucleus that made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, while Bryant's Lakers have been almost completely reconstituted. Postseason success is the best way to silence critics. If Kobe Bryant stays healthy for the remainder of the season, he will have a great opportunity to refute not only those who question his ability to make his teammates better but also Barkley and anyone else who denies that he is a true superstar.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM


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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

We Are Family

Note: Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" was released a few years after the NBA-ABA merger, but it is the perfect theme song to represent how ABA players feel about each other. This article was originally published on March 2, 2005 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

Loyalty and togetherness.

These unbreakable bonds connecting most ABA players were renewed and strengthened throughout the "ABA Ol' School Reunion," which took place in Denver during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend. The Reunion was organized by Fatty Taylor, who played seven years in the ABA, and his longtime friend James Render.

"I got the idea for the Reunion because the NBA All-Star Game was coming to Denver, Colorado, which is an ABA city," Taylor said. "So it is only fitting to have a Reunion for all the ABA guys. I just decided to get all the guys together in a spirit of fellowship. We figured that it is a chance just to see each other again. There is no telling when your day will come. It started off as a big party, but it turned into more than I thought it would."

The ABA Reunion is not an "official" NBA All-Star Weekend event and this does not bother Taylor at all. "I just thought that it was something that I really wanted to do--getting in touch with guys who I haven't seen in years. They were happy and wanted to see each other. See, the ABA players are a little different from the NBA players. We had a close-knit league. The NBA tried to destroy us and never wanted to see us make it. We played hard and we tried hard (to not let that happen)."

Taylor would like to make the ABA Reunion an annual event. "This is something that could be for us every year at the All-Star Game--an ABA Reunion, having different festivities. Everybody likes each other and we are happy to see each other. When we played against each other, we went out there and played hard, but after the game we would go out and party and have a good time. We just want to relive some of those good times."

The festivities began on Thursday, February 17 when several ABA players--including Rick Darnell, Mike Davis, Willie Davis, Joe Hamilton, Eugene "Goo" Kennedy, Warren Jabali and James Silas--gathered at Denver's East High School to sign autographs and reminisce. Riding in a yellow Hummer stretch limo to the school, the players regaled each other with stories. Not surprisingly, Julius Erving featured prominently in several of them--both for his ABA exploits and for his summer-league displays.

Joe Hamilton described a Dr. J move that was so otherworldly that Hamilton fell off of the bench in amazement and was fined by his coach for not keeping his mind on the game. Several players mentioned the Doctor destroying Sidney Wicks in a summer-league game after Wicks had proclaimed that he was going to shut down Erving. Asked about this later, Erving remembered the incident, saying that it happened at the Willie Naulls game in Los Angeles.

Mike Davis described a Rucker League encounter when Connie Hawkins blocked Wilt Chamberlain's patented fadeaway jumper, except that he was not satisfied to just block it--he wiped the ball all over the backboard before sweeping in the rebound. After that, Chamberlain discarded the fade away for that evening and proceeded to dunk on everybody in sight.

Davis, who lives in New York, got up at 4 am and had to take a flight with a Las Vegas connection to arrive in Denver. When the pilot said that the plane was flying over Colorado, Davis felt like saying, "Hey, drop me off here!" He was tired and hungry during the drive to East High School, but would not have missed the ABA Reunion for the world. Signing autographs and interacting with fans has a special meaning to Davis, who explained that he'll never forget meeting a professional basketball player for the first time when Carl Braun, the New York Knicks' star guard in the 1950s, spoke at the Boys and Girls Club that Davis went to as a child.

Many of the fans at the East High School event had not even been born when the ABA existed, but others had vivid memories of the league. One older gentleman brought with him a program from the 1984 NBA All-Star Game, which was held in McNichols Arena in Denver and featured several ex-ABA players. When he seemed a bit reticent about asking for autographs, Darnell came over, talked with him, asked him which players he was looking for and made sure that he got the signatures he wanted.

Warren Jabali is a very interesting figure. When it is suggested to him that it is amazing that one year he averaged 10 rpg as a 6-2 guard/forward going against much taller players, he says simply, "They couldn't jump." There is no pretense to his comments and no extra words--he gets straight to the point. Most of the ABA players are quick with a joke or a comment, but Jabali is more reticent, perhaps because he feels that he has been misquoted and misrepresented previously. He has a Jim Brown-like presence--quiet, but strong and confident.

After the appearance at East High School, which was covered by the local Fox television affiliate in Denver, the players headed back to the Doubletree Hotel for the Welcome Reception. While a DJ spun songs from the 1970s, the ABA players renewed acquaintances and interacted with fans who bought tickets for the event.

That night Hamilton told me about playing on the 1974-75 Kentucky Colonels team that won the ABA Championship. He recalls that when Coach Hubie Brown arrived, things changed. "We're like, 'Hubie, come on, we're veterans.' We practiced like it was the first day. It could be February the 15th and we've played 60 games. We're still practicing like it's the first day, but that's Hubie. Hubie knew every nook and cranny of this game. Any situation that would come up, Hubie Brown had something for it. His knowledge of the game was just so amazing."

Hamilton indicated that Brown's encyclopedic understanding of basketball mirrors the football wizardry of the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick. Hamilton knows something about football. He used to work as the Athletic Director for Louisville's youth programs and his son Joey III is an assistant coach at Male High School in Louisville, winners of three state football championships under the direction of Bob Redman (father of NFL quarterback Chris Redman).

On Friday, the players did more autograph signings. During the Reunion weekend, Lelands.com donated its expertise to coordinate in person signings by over 20 ABA players--including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, George Gervin and Moses Malone--of 300 basketballs and will sell the limited edition balls over the next year, with some of the proceeds benefiting the Colorado Hawks, Taylor's AAU team for fourth through twelfth graders.

Friday night's "Ol' School ABA Reunion Party" at Invesco Field featured a performance by India.Arie, daughter of five-time ABA All-Star Ralph Simpson. She performed several of her hits, including "Video" and "Talk to Her," plus material from her new CD. Throughout the evening, video screens showed montages of ABA highlights, which were provided by Arthur Hundhausen, webmaster of the Remember the ABA website

ABA players frequently point out that at the time of the merger, the NBA needed what the ABA had: the best young players--like Erving, Gervin, Malone, David Thompson and Artis Gilmore--and an exciting, free-flowing game. Hundhausen's videos provided evidence of this, showcasing a fun, fast-moving game featuring ball and player movement, good shooting, dramatic dunks and devastating blocked shots.

It is amazing that Gilmore, one of the great all-around centers in the history of the game, is not in the Hall of Fame and is not even among this year's finalists for the honor. Gilmore is stoic and resigned about the mystifying snub, although he poignantly notes that induction would have meant more to him if he had received it before the passing of his mother within the last year.

Saturday was an open day for the players to rest and unwind. On Sunday morning, hundreds of retired NBA and ABA players attended the NBA Retired Players Association's annual brunch at the Hyatt Regency/Denver Tech Center. Cedric the Entertainer served as emcee and several ABA players and coaches received awards--including Byron Beck (Original Denver Nugget), Larry Brown (Coach of the Year; he was unable to attend the ceremony), Spencer Haywood (Legend Award), Dan Issel (Founder Award), Doug Moe (Humanitarian Award) and David Thompson (Mr. Denver Nugget Award). Lafayette "Fat" Lever (Community Service Award) and Kiki Vandeweghe (Basketball Executive Award), who both played for the Nuggets in the NBA, were also recognized.

The ABA Reunion concluded Sunday evening with a gathering at the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Center of Performing Arts, just a few blocks from the Pepsi Center. The ABA players joined fans to watch the NBA All-Star Game on big screen TVs. After the game ended, the party was just beginning, as the screens switched to Hundhausen's ABA highlight video montages. The After Party lasted until past 1 am. Some retired NBA players stopped by as well, including current Hall of Fame finalist Adrian Dantley.

Four-time All-ABA guard Mack Calvin put the whole weekend into perspective: "I think that what is important and special about this is that the ABA players--Doc and Gervin and all the guys--have always been a unit. A lot of guys can think about doing their own thing, but those guys have always been team guys. There has always been some camaraderie. I think that this exemplifies the overall attitude for over 30 years. The ABA guys are like a family. We had to stick together in order to survive. It's all about seeing these guys and talking about the old days."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 PM


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Friday, September 04, 2015

Why Julius Erving Belongs in the Greatest Player of All-Time Conversation--and Other Pantheon-Related Issues

Shaquille O'Neal has been criticized for his recent comment that Julius Erving should be included in the greatest player of all-time conversation. Talking heads on SiriusXM NBA Radio who by their own admission did not see Erving in his prime--and whose limited knowledge of Erving's career is derived from watching internet video clips--emphatically declared that Erving belongs no higher than 10th-20th on the all-time list. Bill Simmons, perhaps the most overrated NBA commentator of all-time, has made similar remarks about Erving prior to O'Neal jumping into the fray.

It has become increasingly clear that few people take a serious, objective approach when comparing the great players from various eras and that even fewer know enough about pre-1990 players to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation. Jeff Van Gundy is one of the best commentators about the modern game but--considering that he ranks James Harden above Jerry West--he is apparently uninformed about players from previous eras.

How should players from previous eras be compared to each other and to recent players? Is it necessary to have seen each player in person? Is it necessary to have played or coached at a certain level of the sport? Is it necessary (or even helpful) to rely on internet videos or "advanced basketball statistics" or selected quotes from teammates, opponents, coaches or other respected individuals?

There is not a definitive answer to the question of who is the greatest individual player in a team sport; for that matter, there is not even a definitive answer to the question of which individual single season team is the greatest team in a team sport (though a convincing case could be made that Bill Russell's Boston Celtics are the greatest dynasty in pro basketball history).

My approach when addressing such issues is to consider all available, relevant information, including firsthand knowledge from reputable sources, old video clips, statistics placed in historical and analytical context and quotes from insiders whose perspective seems intelligent and unbiased.

This is not just about numbers or seeing a player a handful of times or one quote from a respected Hall of Famer. It is important to look at skill set and impact. A player can average 20-plus ppg and not even be a great scorer, let alone a great all-around player. Michael Adams averaged 26.5 ppg for the Denver Nuggets in 1990-91 but that number was inflated by the run and gun system implemented by Coach Paul Westhead; Adams did not average more than 18.5 ppg in any other season of his 11 year NBA career and he finished with a respectable but unexceptional 14.7 ppg career scoring average. So, if one were to compare Adams' numbers to other guards one should take into account the context in which Adams posted those numbers; this does not necessitate implementing some kind of "advanced" calculation but it does require an awareness and understanding of basketball history.

I do not mean to pick on Adams or to suggest that anyone has vaulted Adams into the greatest player of all-time conversation; the point is that numbers--and videos and quotes and even firsthand observations--must be placed into relevant context in order to be meaningful. A video of a player's best (or worst) game should not be the basis of that player's all-time ranking, nor should a quote from a respected Hall of Famer who had a personal beef with that player, nor should a firsthand observation from someone who had a reason to place that player higher or lower than that player should be placed.

Nearly 10 years ago, I first described my basketball Pantheon. I subsequently expanded that two part series into a five part series. I refrained from ranking the 10 players within my Pantheon but I suggested that a plausible case for greatest of all-time status could be made for each player based on peak value and/or durability (defined not just as sticking around for a long time but rather being one of the top players in the game for at least a decade). I subsequently have been asked at various times to make the case for (or against) certain Pantheon players being the greatest player of all-time. Philosophically I still adhere to Football Hall of Famer Walter Payton's contention that the greatest of the great in any field should be appreciated in their own right and not set against each other--but since so many unqualified people are determined to weigh in on this subject I have decided to shed some light on how such comparisons should properly be done.

The 10 players in my original Pantheon, listed in chronological order, are Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. My Pantheon only included retired players but the fifth Pantheon article looked at the careers of "The Modern Era's Finest" (as of 2008): Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. O'Neal subsequently retired, while Duncan, Bryant and James are not only still active but each won at least one championship since I finished my Pantheon series.

Here is a summary--yes, a summary, not a comprehensive examination, which would fill a book--of my take on the best case for and the best case against each of those 14 players for being considered the greatest basketball player of all-time (all statistical rankings include the ABA and the NBA where applicable).

Bill Russell

PRO: Greatest winner in North American professional team sports history. Led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. Won championships in high school, college, the Olympics and the NBA. Revolutionized defense with his shotblocking in an era when it had previously been considered poor technique to leave one's feet on defense. One of the best passing centers of all-time, ranking in the top 10 in the NBA in assists four times. Won five regular season MVPs (tied for second all-time) and ranks second all-time in career regular season mpg (42.3) and career regular season rpg (22.5).

CON: Russell's listed measurements put him at roughly the same size as Larry Bird, so some critics question if Russell would even be a center in the modern era, let alone a dominant center (but Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace dominated the boards and were tremendous post defenders in recent times for championship teams despite being even smaller than Russell).

Russell's .440 career regular season field goal percentage looks atrocious by modern standards for a dominant center but it is important to place that number in context; he ranked in the top 10 in field goal percentage four times with numbers ranging from .427 to .467, so in an era that featured a brutal travel schedule, no modern training techniques and no flagrant fouls Russell's shooting percentage was above average. However, it is true that Russell had a limited offensive repertoire; he thrived in the running game and he had a decent lefty hook shot but he was not a player who could be relied upon as a consistent back to the basket low post scoring threat. 

ANALYSIS: I have spoken with many old school players who contend that if Wilt Chamberlain had been blessed with Russell's teammates then Chamberlain would have won at least 11 championships but that if Russell had been saddled with Chamberlain's teammates (and with Chamberlain's rotating crew of coaches instead of working for Red Auerbach before serving as player-coach) then Russell might not have even captured the two titles that Chamberlain won. There is something to that argument, because when Chamberlain was asked to sacrifice his scoring and be a dominant defender every night he was willing and able to do so; it seems unlikely that Russell would have been able to score 40 or 50 ppg if his team had needed or asked him to do so. Chamberlain dominated Russell individually in their head to head battles but Russell's teams usually won. Russell has called Chamberlain his toughest opponent but Russell also made derogatory comments about being smarter or tougher than Chamberlain when it really counted.

If you believe that Russell's tenacity, defense and determination to do whatever it takes to win translate across eras then you can rank Russell as the greatest player of all-time despite his offensive limitations; if you believe that Russell is too small and too offensively limited to dominate in the modern era then you cannot rank him as the greatest player of all-time.

Elgin Baylor

PRO: First rate scorer, rebounder and passer who ranks third in career regular season scoring average (27.4 ppg) and 10th in career regular season rebounding average (13.5 rpg) and who finished in the top 10 in assists four times. Baylor possessed elite athletic skills and is the prototype for the modern small forward. During his first seven seasons before suffering a serious knee injury, Baylor posted the most dominant points/rebounds/assists numbers of any forward in pro basketball history. Only three pro basketball players averaged at least 24 ppg, 10 rpg and 4 apg overall during their first seven seasons: Baylor (30.2 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 4.3 apg), Abdul-Jabbar (30.0 ppg, 15.6 rpg, 4.4 apg) and Erving (26.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 4.5 apg). In five of his first seven seasons Baylor averaged at least 24 ppg, at least 10 rpg and at least 4 apg; Abdul-Jabbar reached those levels in six of his first seven seasons, Erving did so in four of his first seven seasons, Robertson accomplished this in three of his first seven seasons and no other player in pro basketball history did it more than twice.

CON: Injuries hampered the second half of Baylor's career. Baylor never won a championship despite playing most of his career alongside West, another greatest player of all-time candidate. Baylor was not an elite defensive player. The 1971-72 Lakers went on a record 33 game regular season winning streak right after Baylor retired early in that season, en route to posting a then-record 69 victories before capturing the championship that had eluded Baylor and West for so long. 

ANALYSIS: Baylor's body had broken down by 1971, so it is not fair to suggest that his retirement was the missing link to the Lakers' success. Baylor's peak value is as high as any other player's, but ultimately his lack of durability and his failure to win a championship make it difficult to rank him ahead of every player in pro basketball history.

Wilt Chamberlain

PRO: Most individually statistically dominant player in pro basketball history, ranking second in career regular season scoring average (30.1 ppg, in a virtual tie with Michael Jordan for first place), first in career regular season mpg average (45.8), first in career regular season rpg average (22.9 rpg) and first in total career regular season rebounds (23,924). The pro basketball record book could be renamed "The Wilt Chamberlain Story," as he still holds dozens of records--including the record for holding the most records. Chamberlain's records for single season scoring (50.4 ppg) and rebounding (27.2 rpg) will likely never be seriously approached, let alone broken. He led the league at least once in scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and minutes played. Other than free throw shooting, he had no skill set weaknesses (Russell was also an awful free throw shooter, but this is often forgotten because Russell's teams won so many championships). Chamberlain was the key player on two of the most dominant teams in pro basketball history, the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers. When critics knocked his passing or his defense he responded by proving that he could be a great passer and a dominant defender.

CON: Some people would argue that Chamberlain cared more about his individual numbers than he did about winning. Chamberlain was very sensitive to criticism and it has been suggested that he reacted extremely to negative media coverage, sometimes not shooting the ball to prove how well he could pass or shooting the ball almost every time to prove that even late in his career he could still drop 50 or 60 points in a game. While Russell did whatever his team needed him to do to win, Chamberlain seemed focused on refuting his critics.

ANALYSIS: As noted above, Russell played for one franchise and two coaches. Russell's role was always clearly defined and he was always surrounded by multiple Hall of Famers. Chamberlain played for several coaches and several different franchises. When Chamberlain's coaches asked him to score, he set scoring records; when they asked him to shoot less and exert himself on defense, he dominated at that end of the court. It is easy to picture Chamberlain spending his whole career as a rebounder and defender if he had been asked to do so and it is also easy to picture him spending most of his career averaging 35-plus ppg if he had been asked to do that. Russell made the most of his individual talents and the opportunities that he had to win titles but Chamberlain had a more diverse skill set. Chamberlain was undoubtedly more talented and versatile than Russell. There is no "right" answer in the Chamberlain-Russell debate; a compelling case for greatest of all-time status can be made for either player.

Oscar Robertson

PRO: No skill set weaknesses. Invented the triple double before the term was even coined, averaging double figures in scoring, rebounding and assists overall for the first five seasons of his career, including 1961-62 when he became the first and only player to average a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg). Vital contributor for Milwaukee's 1971 championship team, helping a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar win his first pro title. Retired as the all-time leader in total assists (9887) and still ranks sixth in that category. Ranks ninth in career regular season scoring average (25.7 ppg) and fourth in career regular season apg average (9.5 apg).
CON: Did not win a championship during his prime when he was the best player on his team. Some would argue that he monopolized the ball at times and that he was too critical of his teammates, though there have been many other great players who kept the ball in their hands a lot and who had little patience with their teammates.

ANALYSIS: Inch for inch, pound for pound, Robertson is as good as any player who ever played. Robertson insists that he was as good--if not better than--Michael Jordan and the numbers that Robertson put up make that a reasonable assertion. Robertson had the necessary mental and physical attributes to excel in any era.

Jerry West

PRO: Incredible competitive drive. Perfect jump shot. Tenacious defender. Won a scoring title and an assists title, a feat only matched by Chamberlain and Nate Archibald. Only member of the losing team to win the Finals MVP. Ranks sixth in career regular season scoring average (27.0 ppg) and was the career playoff scoring leader when he retired (4457 points, currently ninth on the all-time list).

CON: His Lakers went 1-8 in the NBA Finals, including four game seven losses. West earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch" because of his propensity for making big shots but it could be argued that if he is the greatest player of all-time then he should have made more out of all of those opportunities to win championships, particularly the four times that the title came down to one game.

ANALYSIS: West carried the Lakers to the 1965 Finals without the injured Baylor, averaging 40.6 ppg during the playoffs. He persevered through injuries to win the 1969 Finals MVP in defeat, posting 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists while playing all 48 minutes in a 108-106 game seven loss to Russell's Celtics. If you look at West's productivity it is almost obscene to suggest that he was a loser just because he only won one title. West was not LeBron James standing passively on the perimeter or getting outplayed by the likes of Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard. West's Lakers lost to Boston teams that were stacked with Hall of Famers and, in West's later years, to New York teams that were younger and also had several Hall of Famers. West had no skill set weaknesses at either end of the court. The main legitimate argument against him is not so much that he only won one title but rather that he was barely 6-3 in a sport where size matters. West is the smallest Pantheon member and it is probably not coincidental that he battled injuries throughout his career.

For those who are too young to have seen West play and/or who have not thoroughly researched basketball history, it is important to categorically state that Van Gundy's preference for Harden over West is a crime against basketball sanity. Harden's greatest team accomplishment to date is being the third best player on a team that advanced to the NBA Finals once, while West carried several teams to the Finals and was the prime offensive threat on one of the sport's all-time single season juggernauts, the 69-13 1971-72 Lakers. Individually, Harden is a poor defender who has a very limited post up game and a very limited midrange game, while West had no individual skill set weaknesses.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

PRO: Durable and brilliant, combining Chamberlain's scoring prowess with Russell-esque presence in the paint defensively. His skyhook was the most unstoppable offensive weapon in basketball history. Broke Chamberlain's regular season career scoring record more than 30 years ago and still holds the crown now with 38,387 points. Also ranks third in career regular season blocked shots (3189) and fourth in career regular season rebounds (17,440). Won a record six regular season MVPs, plus six championships and two Finals MVPs (including one in 1985 at the age of 38). Finished third in MVP voting in 1969-70 as a rookie and fifth in MVP voting in 1985-86 at the age of 39. Key contributor in 1987-88 at age 40 for first team to win back to back championships since Russell's Celtics in 1969.

CON: Abdul-Jabbar developed a reputation for not playing hard all of the time and for not being as aggressive on the boards as he could have been, which brings to mind a sentiment that Ralph Wiley once expressed about baseball great Rickey Henderson: if he accomplished that much and he was not even trying hard then he must have been the greatest of all-time. Abdul-Jabbar averaged double figures in rebounding for the first 12 seasons of his career, ranking in the top 10 each year and winning one rebounding title, so the rebounding critique is not well founded.

ANALYSIS: Erving said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever faced. It is likely that Erving would own two more NBA titles if not for Abdul-Jabbar's impact during the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals. Robertson did not win a title until he teamed up with Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson would not likely have won all five of his titles without Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar's presence shaped Pantheon history (in terms of championships and MVPs won)--and pro basketball history--like no player other than perhaps Russell and Jordan. Abdul-Jabbar is probably the most underrated great player of all-time.

Julius Erving

PRO: All-around force of nature who carried a limited 1976 Nets team to the ABA's last championship by posting perhaps the most remarkable stat line ever in a playoff series, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) while shooting .590 from the field as the Nets beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2 in the Finals. Erving is one of only four players in pro basketball history to win three straight regular season MVPs (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird). Critics say that Erving won those MVPs because the ABA was weaker than the NBA but most of the three-peat MVP winners accomplished this feat early in their careers and that factor is the relevant one, because if you just eliminate the first five years from any pro basketball player's career you will greatly impact his resume, as I noted in ABA Numbers Should Also Count:

No player's resume would emerge unscathed from such drastic revisions. Take away Michael Jordan's first five years and you erase one MVP, his two highest scoring seasons, his only Defensive Player of the Year award, two scoring titles, one steals title and his playoff single game scoring record of 63 points. Larry Bird would lose two of his three championships, one MVP, one NBA Finals MVP and his best single season totals in rebounds and steals. Magic Johnson would forfeit two of his five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, two steals titles, one assists title and his single season bests in rebounding and steals.

In 1981, Erving became the first non-center to win the NBA regular season MVP since Robertson (1964). Erving led the 76ers to the best overall regular season record in the NBA from 1976-83, guiding the team to four NBA Finals and one title. Moses Malone was the best player on that 1983 championship team, but during that season Erving made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting at 33 years old so he was hardly just along for the ride.

Erving retired as the regular season career steals leader (2272, currently seventh on the all-time list) and the third leading regular season career scorer (30,026 points, currently sixth on the all-time list). Erving was the first non-center to break the 30,000 point barrier and he scored at least 1000 points in each of his 16 seasons. Erving never played on a team with a losing record or a team that failed to make the playoffs; he was the first athlete in the history of North American major professional team sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to achieve those distinctions in a career lasting at least 16 seasons (Karl Malone and John Stockton both later made the playoffs in each season of their 19 year careers, while Scottie Pippen made the playoffs in the first 16 seasons of his career before missing the playoffs in his 17th and final season).

Erving is one of the most dominant and consistent Finals performers in pro basketball history. He scored at least 20 points in 10 of his 11 ABA Finals games, including his last seven. He scored at least 20 points in each of his first 19 NBA Finals games, the second longest NBA Finals 20 point scoring streak at that time in league history behind Jerry West's 25 game streak. Erving now ranks fourth on that list behind Michael Jordan, Jerry West and Shaquille O'Neal but if those seven ABA games are included then Erving's 26 game streak trails only Jordan's 35 game streak. Erving scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 NBA Finals games.

CON: Erving did not sustain the dominant performance level of his first five years throughout his entire career. When Erving arrived in Philadelphia, the management and coaching staff urged him to blend his talents with those of All-Stars George McGinnis and Doug Collins. Erving accepted first among equals status for several years as the Sixers came close to winning a title but never got quite over the hump. By the time Erving won an NBA championship, he was no longer the best player on the team. Based on the way that Erving lifted his game circa 1980-82 when the Sixers no longer asked Erving to sublimate his game to appease lesser players, it is reasonable to assume that Erving could have posted much better numbers from 1977-79 if that had been needed or wanted. The question is whether Erving should receive credit for being a good teammate or if he and his team would have been better served by operating with a different philosophy more in line with the way that Phil Jackson handled Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in their respective primes.

ANALYSIS: Erving deferred to his teammates and coaches, particularly in the NBA, in a way that most other Pantheon members did not. Erving has been lauded as a great teammate and there is no doubt that--based on how he played in his first five years--he was willing and able to do more when called upon to do so. Should Erving have been more assertive with the coaching staff and management, a la Magic Johnson in 1981 or Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant at various stages of their careers? It is hard to fault Erving in light of all that he accomplished, though. His peak value is top shelf and his durability is impressive as well. If he had snagged one more NBA MVP and if the Sixers had captured the 1981 title (instead of blowing a 3-1 lead against eventual champion Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals) then Erving would likely be viewed differently by the casual fan and the uninformed commentator. However, based purely on the merits of what Erving accomplished a good case can be made that at his best he was better than anyone else.

Magic Johnson

PRO: Instant impact. All-around player. Underrated defender within team concept. Revitalized Abdul-Jabbar's career. Gave the impression that he could take the court with four guys he picked up off of the street and beat all comers. The media elevated Bird over Magic for the first several years of their careers, giving Bird the Rookie of the Year and three straight MVPs even though Magic took the early lead in championships won and was never surpassed by Bird in that category. In the end, Magic won five rings compared to Bird's three and he matched Bird's MVP total as well. Magic led the Lakers to back to back titles, a feat that had not been accomplished in nearly 20 years.

CON: Magic was not a great outside shooter, though he did become a great free throw shooter. Magic was not a great individual defender. Although Magic made a lot of lesser players look good, he was also blessed with the opportunity to play with greatest player of all-time candidate Abdul-Jabbar plus Hall of Famer/Top 50 player James Worthy, Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, All-Star Norm Nixon and many other very good players.

ANALYSIS: During the 1987 Finals, an exasperated Bird conceded that Magic was the best player he had ever seen. After that series, most people who ranked Bird ahead of Magic or who considered the two rivals to be equal started to realize that Magic had the edge. Bird inexplicably has the better reputation as a defender even though the Celtics routinely hid Bird against the weakest frontcourt player while Magic handled a variety of defensive assignments, including guarding Erving for portions of the 1982 Finals.

Larry Bird

PRO: Tremendous rebounder early in career. Opportunistic help defender. Clutch shooter. Deft passer. Transformed Celtics from 29 win team to 61 win team in rookie year. Won three straight MVPs in the mid-1980s, beating out several greatest player of all-time candidates plus a host of other very talented players.

CON: Bird was a subpar individual defender. Bird had little chance of effectively guarding elite small forwards or power forwards, so Kevin McHale always handled the toughest defensive assignment. If Bird had not played alongside McHale and Robert Parish then his defensive liabilities would have been exposed. Bird was also not a great shooter early in his playoff career. His poor shooting cost him the 1981 Finals MVP and he shot better than .500 from the field just three times in 12 postseason appearances, while shooting .427 or worse on three occasions (Erving shot better than .500 from the field in seven of his 16 postseason appearances, he had two more appearances in which he shot at least .488 from the field and he never shot worse than .471, which is nearly as good as Bird's career playoff field goal percentage of .472).

ANALYSIS: Bird was a tremendous player but there was clearly a "great white hope" aspect to some of the praise he received. The media elevated him above Magic until there was no way to justify doing so and the media gave Bird the 1984 MVP when the consensus among the league's players was that Bernard King deserved that honor (King won the 1984 Sporting News NBA MVP, selected by the players). Jack McCallum's March 3, 1986 Sports Illustrated paean about Bird is typical of the way that media members raved about Bird at that time but it is interesting to read McCallum's piece carefully and consider how some of Bird's actions would be viewed if another player had done them. Here is McCallum describing Bird's attitude and focus:

"I think Larry gets bored out there sometimes," says teammate Danny Ainge. "I notice that he passes up these incredibly easy shots, and you can sense him thinking, 'Well, why don't I drive down the lane, get a few guys on me and see what happens?'" Bird confirms that. "It happens. I do get bored. Then I look for a way to make it interesting," he says...

Bird does take--and miss--many low-percentage shots, horrible shots that would earn a lesser player pine time. But that is part of his game, part of his aura. He is constantly communicating the idea that he can do anything out there, and indeed, some of his off-balance uglies go in. "I'm like a gymnast," says Bird. "I'm into degree of difficulty."

Substitute Kobe Bryant's name for Bird's in that quote and imagine the negative outcry that would ensue. Why is taking low percentage shots "part of his game, part of his aura" for Bird but some kind of crime against basketball humanity for Bryant?

There is another interesting Bird-Bryant comparison. After Bryant set the Madison Square Garden scoring record with 61 points the critics howled that Bryant is a selfish gunner, even though Bryant shot a crisp 19-31 from the field in just 37 minutes while playing with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand. Bryant did not deviate from the game plan or take crazy shots; he set the record within the flow of the game. Contrast that approach with what Bird used to do; he would find out what the scoring record was in a given arena and try to break it, including his career-high 60 point game in Atlanta when the Celtics--with the win well in hand--kept fouling the Hawks to get more possessions so Bird could pad his scoring total. There are some media members whose heads would explode if Bryant pulled a stunt like that, but when Bird did it this supposedly showed his great competitive spirit.

The bottom line is that Magic beat--and outplayed--Bird in the 1979 NCAA Championship and won the 1980 Finals MVP as a rookie yet it took seven years before the consensus view was that Magic was the better player. Magic was always a pass first player and a winner, while Bird cared a lot more about scoring records and statistics than many people want to admit or remember. Even if one bought the hype that as of 1984-86 Bird was the greatest player of all-time (a questionable proposition in any event), it is evident that Magic surpassed Bird and also evident that Jordan subsequently surpassed Magic, making it difficult to now suggest that Bird is the greatest player of all-time.

Michael Jordan

PRO: Relentless scorer who could also effectively play point guard at times. First rate defender both individually and within team concept. Led the Chicago Bulls to two three-peat championship runs interrupted by a retirement to play pro baseball. Jordan had no skill set weaknesses and was one of the most explosive athletes ever to play the sport. Won five regular season MVPs (tied for second all-time with Russell) and a record six Finals MVPs.

CON: Jordan never made it past the first round without Scottie Pippen. Few Pantheon members had the privilege of spending virtually their entire careers alongside a player as great as Pippen. Jordan did not show the capacity to singlehandedly carry a limited team in the playoffs like West in 1965 (40.6 ppg in the playoffs with LeRoy Ellis second on the team in playoff mpg) or Erving in 1976 (34.7 ppg in the playoffs). After Jordan's first retirement, the Bulls replaced him with Pete Myers, posted virtually the same regular season record and were one horrible Hue Hollins call away from making a serious title run with Pippen leading the team in virtually every statistical category.

ANALYSIS: Jordan became a legend in his own time thanks to a perfect confluence of his talents, his team's success, the growth of the NBA and some very deft crafting/marketing of his image. Jordan deserves credit for the work he put into mastering his craft but it is arguable that, given a similar confluence of events, Erving could have won as many championships and scoring titles as Jordan. It is also arguable that if Jordan had played in the center-dominated 1970s and 1980s he would not have won six championships or five regular season MVPs. Jordan is the default greatest player of all-time choice for many people and a great case can be made for him but it is important to realize that there were some great players before and after Jordan as well.

Shaquille O'Neal

PRO: The most physically dominant player of his era. When he was motivated and in shape he was unstoppable. Led the Magic to one Finals appearance, led the Lakers to four Finals appearances and three titles and helped the Heat win the franchise's first championship.

CON: O'Neal did not possess the work ethic or drive demonstrated by most other Pantheon members. His deficiencies in those areas caused a rift with Bryant, whose work ethic and drive are unsurpassed. O'Neal heavily relied on simply bulling over opponents and did not possess the polished offensive repertoires displayed by Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar. Despite his dominance he only won one regular season MVP.

ANALYSIS: O'Neal accomplished a lot but he left too much of his potential untapped to be considered the greatest player of all-time. He was not more statistically dominant than Chamberlain, he did not come close to winning as many titles as Russell and he was not as multifaceted or durable as Abdul-Jabbar. It is easy to say that Russell would have been way too small to guard O'Neal but during the 1990s the Bulls went extended stretches with Dennis Rodman guarding O'Neal; leverage, toughness and smarts are very important qualities and Russell possessed all three to an even greater extent than Rodman.

Tim Duncan

PRO: Duncan has been efficient and effective at both ends of the court throughout his career. Duncan is a low maintenance superstar who has never complained--at least publicly--about minutes or shot attempts or anything else. Duncan's defensive impact is underrated and has remained high even as he has accepted a smaller role on offense during the second half of his career.

CON: Duncan is not nearly as statistically dominant as most other Pantheon members; his career-high scoring average (25.5 ppg in 2001-02) is lower than the career scoring averages of several Pantheon members and in the past eight seasons he has not once averaged 20 ppg.

ANALYSIS: Duncan had a dominant stretch in the early to mid-2000s and his role on the last two San Antonio championship teams is underrated but it could at least be argued that he has not been the Spurs' best or most valuable player for eight years. An excellent case could be made that Duncan is the greatest power forward of all-time (the best way to attack that premise is to argue that Duncan has actually been a de facto center for much of his career). Duncan is a model of all-around consistency and I would take him over any power forward (and most centers) but his peak value does not quite measure up with the peak values of some Pantheon members.

Kobe Bryant

PRO: Scoring machine with no skill set weaknesses. He was the second leading scorer and the primary playmaker on three championship teams before being the leading scorer and primary playmaker on the Lakers' back to back championship teams in 2009-10. Bryant has set a host of scoring records, he turned around USA Basketball after the squad had several dismal and embarrassing performances without him and at his peak he was both a lockdown defender and a tremendous help defender.

CON: Bryant's critics say that he shoots too much, is overrated defensively and has a personality that negatively affects his teammates. Somehow, despite all of these alleged deficiencies, Bryant has managed to be an All-NBA level performer for five championship teams and he has also carried some awful teams to the playoffs. The players who the media elevates as model teammates and leaders--such as Steve Nash and Chris Paul--have enjoyed far less individual and team success than Bryant, which is the ultimate refutation of Bryant's critics: whatever one might think of Bryant's methods, those methods have worked not only for Bryant personally but also for his many teammates who enjoyed career seasons (and won championships) playing alongside him.

ANALYSIS: Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan since Jordan retired--and that is no small accomplishment--but it is difficult to argue that Bryant is better than Jordan. Although Bryant is criticized for not making his teammates better, the reality is that there is a long list of players who performed much better with Bryant than they did during the rest of their careers, ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker). LeBron James is considered the ultimate teammate, yet his teammates (including Chris Bosh and Kevin Love) have to sacrifice a lot to play with James, while Bryant's teammates enjoy greater individual and team success than they did prior to and/or after playing with Bryant.

LeBron James

PRO: James has Karl Malone's body combined with the skill set of a much smaller player. He is one of the most dominant scorers in pro basketball history (his 27.3 ppg career regular season scoring average ranks fourth all-time) and he is also an accomplished rebounder, passer and defender.
CON: For many years, defense, post up game and outside shot were three prominent weaknesses in James' game. He has become an excellent defender and a very good post up player. James' outside shot has improved as well but he is still prone to losing confidence and/or effectiveness from distance when the stakes are high. James has a perplexing and exasperating propensity to either disappear in big games or else put up superficially good numbers in those games without actually impacting the ultimate outcome. Some say that James quit in those games, while others suggest that when James is faced with a situation that he does not expect or understand he becomes passive and analytical while trying to figure things out; for instance, when the Spurs dared James to shoot from the outside in the NBA Finals James seemed perplexed and uncertain whether he should take those shots, drive anyway or pass the ball--but a player like Jordan or Bryant would have accepted that challenge and made the other team pay (not that teams were likely to blatantly concede open shots to Jordan or Bryant, which is another reason to not rank James ahead of either player).

ANALYSIS: James has exhibited impressive all-around statistical dominance but something seems to be missing, at least in terms of the greatest player of all-time discussion. James has been the best player in the league for several years and his teams have amassed tremendous regular season win totals but he has just a 2-4 record in the NBA Finals. Teams do not win 60-plus games by accident or purely based on the efforts of one player, so it is wrong to suggest that James has not had good supporting casts. James' teams have been good enough to post the best record in the NBA and to repeatedly advance to the NBA Finals but once James arrives in the NBA Finals he has been outdone not only by legends (Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki) but also by players who are not even close to Pantheon status, including Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala and even Jason Terry, who killed James in the clutch in the 2011 Finals. Most Pantheon members have a better Finals winning percentage than James and when the other Pantheon members lost in the Finals it was usually to a team featuring one or more Pantheon level players. If Earth is putting together a team for a winner take all, one game showdown with aliens and the fate of humanity is on the line, I would feel nervous about picking James. Will he be passive or disinterested? He is seemingly in marvelous shape yet he comes up with leg cramps at the most inopportune moments in the NBA Finals; James is useless if he is standing passively on the perimeter or if he is sitting on the bench while the trainer massages his legs.

Of course, the LeBron James story still has a few unwritten chapters. He may add a couple more rings to his collection while continuing to fill up box scores. However, as things stand now it is difficult to rank him at the very top of the Pantheon because his failures have been too grand, too frequent and too inexplicable. In their primes, I would take Erving, Jordan and Bryant all day every day over James; this is not about numbers but about the way a player rises to the occasion and figures out what needs to be done. James would not have led the Nets to the 1976 title, he would not have led the Bulls to six titles in eight years and he would not have won back to back titles surrounded by Pau Gasol (who was 0-12 in the playoffs before teaming up with Bryant) and some role players. If James had been in those situations he would have complained about not having enough help and about being fatigued.

Concluding Thoughts and Observations about the Pantheon Level Players

There is a certain limited but reasonable calculus that can be made based on concurrent careers, namely that Magic was better than Bird and Jordan was better than Magic. Some would extend that logic to say that Bird was better than Erving but the record is not so clear about that since their primes did not coincide; Erving more than held his own against Bird individually and in terms of team success until Erving was 35 and Bird was at his absolute peak, so it is very doubtful that prime Bird would have had much success against prime Erving.

Bryant is the closest thing to Jordan since Jordan retired but Bryant does not have quite the midrange efficiency of Jordan. The "stat gurus" would elevate James over everyone but by the eye test it is hard to put James above Bryant, who did whatever it took to win and never made excuses.

Chamberlain versus Russell is the rivalry that launched many books and is still the defining individual battle in the sport's history. When I was younger and before I began covering the NBA professionally, I leaned toward Chamberlain. Now I vacillate, alternately valuing Chamberlain's statistical dominance and Russell's intelligence, athleticism, defense and tenacity. I cannot definitively say that Russell  is the greatest player of all-time but in a seven game series with my life at stake I would much rather have him on my side than on the opposing side.

Abdul-Jabbar has always been very underrated. If someone eventually comes up with "advanced basketball statistics" that truly capture every player's value accurately I would not be astounded if Abdul-Jabbar topped the all-time list.

So what is the takeaway from all of this? First and foremost, everything cannot be figured out in 140 characters or less; intelligent conversations about this subject necessarily involve more than a Twitter post or some off the cuff comments by an unprepared radio host who is filling time between commercials. Jordan is the popular choice now and he is not a bad choice but if you strip away the mythology and just look at skill sets and dominance then other players deserve to be in the conversation, too. Put Jordan in an era featuring Abdul-Jabbar on a legit squad and it is doubtful that Jordan racks up six titles in eight years. Put Erving in a later era and let him loose and he would be as good as anyone.

I just wish that people would spend more time examining context and nuance instead of just mindlessly and endlessly arguing in favor of "their guy," whoever that guy might be.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:55 PM


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