Jun 25, 2009

Trades Out-Hype the Draft

It is fitting that the draft commonly thought of as the weakest in years was outdone by trades.

When Orlando and Cleveland met in the Eastern Conference Finals, Orlando walked away with the last laugh. On draft night, Orlando laughed last again by countering Cleveland's Shaq acquisition with their Vince Carter pickup. Coincidence? I think not.

Clearly, O'Neal and Carter are both on their way down the peak of their respective careers. In fact, this night's draftees were still in grade school when Carter and O'Neal came into the league.

These moves were made out of desparation. Cleveland knows that now may be the only time to convince Lebron to stay. Orlando could taste supremacy this season, only to watch it slip away in the final round.

So what do these trades mean for these teams? Do these elderly statesmen have enough in their tanks to make a difference? Do they even fit with their new teams' rosters? Let's take a closer look.

Shaq to Cleveland:

On paper, Cleveland didn't risk much in this transaction. Shaq's gargantuan contract expires next year, and the departed (Ben Wallace & Sasha Pavlovic) will hardly be missed. In reality, Cleveland risked everything. Lebron may pack his bags if the Diesel isn't the right piece and Cleveland can't win a title next season.

Shaq's presence will be felt one way or another. That's what immovable objects do. Whether this presence will be positive or negative is the real question.

Best case scenario, the double-teams commanded by Shaq will give Lebron more room to operate and free up Cleveland's array of one-dimensional shooters. His body will wear down Cleveland's newest nemesis (Orlando) and neutralize Dwight Howard. Cleveland's undoing in the ECF was largely due to the inability of the Wallace/Illgauskas combo to slow down Dwight Howard. Finally, Mo Williams won't have to be the #2 option, a role he wasn't ready to play against Orlando.

Worst case scenario, Shaq's immobility will be a problem in defending pick-and-rolls. His loitering in the offensive lane will clog things up for Lebron, who's jumpshot isn't good enough to remain on the perimeter. His ego will be damaging when Lebron steals all of his publicity.

I'm guessing the Cavs' regular season record will be impacted negatively by this transaction. It will take the team weeks, if not months, to become accustomed to having Shaq on the court. Defensive rotations will change, offensive spacing will change, and Lebron's development as the team's leader will by stymied.

However, Cavs didn't make this trade to win the regular season. They made this trade to win the postseason. Acquiring the Diesel was monumental for Cleveland's chances to outlast Boston and Orlando in the 2010 playoffs. As those playoffs will probably make or break the franchise's future with Lebron, this was a great move.

Carter to Orlando:

Bringing in Carter shows Orlando's commitment to the here and now, sacrificing the future promise of Courtney Lee to get a few twilight years from Carter.

First question I have is: who's going to take the last shot on this roster? Lewis and Turkoglu showed icy veins time and again this postseason. Carter has provided late-game heroics throughout his career. I suppose this dilemma is a good problem to have. The only thing I know for sure is that Dwight Howard won't be taking the last shot.

Best case scenario, Carter will flourish in the pinstripes. His three-point proficiency and ability to finish in the open court will mesh perfectly with Orlando's open style of play. If teams struggled matching up with Turkoglu and Lewis in '09, adding Carter to the mix could make the matchups nightmarish in '10. Now all five Magic starters are all-star caliber players.

Worst case scenario, Carter is lost in this offense. He isn't accustomed to sitting in the corner awaiting a kickout, which is what Magic players not named Dwight Howard do best. He doesn't handle the ball enough to play his game, and his ho-hum attitude takes the fire out of Magic bellies.

I think the Carter pickup will solidify Orlando's domination of Lebron's Cavaliers. Lebron couldn't cover Hedo and Rashard simultaneously this season, and nobody else on that roster could cover either of them. With Carter and Turkoglu interchangeable as ballhandling wings, Orlando will pick-and-roll Shaq to death. With a healthy Garnett, however, I still don't see Orlando beating Boston in a seven-game set. Carter will help the Magic if they make it back to the finals, but getting there will be a tall task.

Jun 23, 2009

Picking Apart the Top Picks

Admittedly, it's all speculation at this point. . . but this year's draft class seems pretty weak.

Browsing the sports cyber-world, I came across NBA.com's consensus mock draft, and was shocked by how many players with glaring weaknesses were projected as lottery picks. In fact, every player not named Blake Griffin (and potentially James Harden) seems destined to underwhelm at the pro level, in my estimation.

Normally, I focus my pre-draft analysis on team needs and overlooked "sleepers." This year, I'm going to be as pessimistic as possible. For each consensus lottery pick, I will present my arguments for why he shouldn't be drafted so high. I've excluded #1 (Blake Griffin) because I don't see any glaring flaws in his game.

2) Hasheem Thabeet: Where do I start? I contemplated writing this entire piece on Thabeet's shortcomings. He's a flimsy, one-dimensional shot-blocker with no resemblance of an offensive game. He got manhandled in college by DeJuan Blair, who is 9 inches shorter than him. He ain't gonna sell any tickets. But he's tall... and he has upside. Yeah, we've heard that before. Think Mutombo at best and Sam Bowie at worst.

Thabeet Rocking the Pink Throw Sweater in Defensive Stopper Fashion

3) Ricky Rubio: The Pistol Pete comparisons are tiresome. If the videos I've seen aren't lying, the Pistol could shoot. Ricky can't. In fact, he shot below 40% from the field last season in EuroLeague. And for all of the press on his remarkable ball-handling, Rubio turned it over 3 times a game in only 23 minutes per. That projects to around 5 turnovers playing starter minutes. But he's excited to play in the NBA. As long as he's not in Memphis. Or OKC. Or Sacramento. Or Minneapolis. Good luck with that.

4) James Harden: Harden's college stats point to a well-rounded game. I saw him play a lot, and he was clearly the best player on the court. When he was engaged. If Harden is going to be a bona fide shooting guard in the NBA, he's gotta be more aggressive. 13 shot attempts per game (like he had at ASU) isn't gonna cut it. I also think he's a little slow for a 6'4 guard.

5) Tyreke Evans: Apparently GM's searching for their franchise point guard aren't putting much merit in Evans' college stats. 3.9 assists, 3.6 turnovers, 27% on threes, 71% on free throws. Shaq can get away with those kind of stats. Point guards can't.

6) Jordan Hill: Meat and potatoes guy. Every team needs a power forward who can rebound and hit the mid-range jumper. There are a lot of guys in the NBA who can do that. That's why you pick one up through free agency -- not with the 6th overall pick.

7) Stephen Curry: Curry should be a 2-guard, but isn't really big enough to play the position full-time. He has the stroke to fill that Vinnie Johnson/Ben Gordon microwave role, but this is the lottery we're talking about here. You don't use a top-7 pick on a role player.

8) Jonny Flynn: I'm having DaJuan Wagner flashbacks...

9) Demar DeRozan: For all the "De"'s in his name, this dude doesn't play much "de"-fense. That's problematic for swingmen trying to cover Lebron, Kobe, and the rest of the multi-talented offensive juggernauts at that position. Oh, did I mention he shot 17% from three? And that's from the college three-point line.

10) Jrue Holiday: He can do a lot of things. He's just not great at any of them. 8.5 ppg & 3.7 ppg as a frosh at UCLA. Impressive.

11) Brandon Jennings: When drafting a point guard, leadership should be as important a factor as scoring, ballhandling, or passing. Jennings didn't get the memo. When Jennings couldn't skip college for the NBA, he thought he was too big for the NCAA, making headlines with an international rotation. Then he made those laughable pre-draft comments. He's sure got a lot of confidence for a guy who put up 6 ppg and 2 apg while in Rome. Rubio's international stats don't look too bad after all.

12) Gerald Henderson: The last 5 guards drafted out of Duke? J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing, Chris Duhon, Trajan Langdon. That worked out well.

13) Earl Clark: Last year, he put up 14 points on 12 shot attempts per game. Not terribly efficient for a 6'9 guy. To be honest, I haven't seen him play much. I did a little research, and it came as no surprise that "shot selection" was listed as one of his weaknesses. Another listed weakness was "focus." That would worry me.

14) DeJuan Blair: It's no wonder Blair can't block shots. He's just a hair over 6'5" without shoes on. Only one post player has ever excelled in the NBA at that height: Charles Barkley. Will Blair be the next Barkley? I say no.

Jun 19, 2009

Memorable Draft-Day Moves: LA Lakers

Now that the season is over, draft talk is in full swing.

While this year's class bores me overall (although I contemplated a piece on Ricky Efron-Rubio), years past have provided all kinds of intriguing moments. Franchises have been built by ingenius picks and destroyed by negligent picks.

Over the years, the Lakers have been a model of consistent success. So what moves have they made to build greatness and which ones were temporary missteps? In honor of their '09 championship, let's take a look back at the most monumental decisions made by Laker brass on draft day.

5. 1977 NBA Draft -- Kenny Carr (6th overall pick)
In a baffling decision, L.A. selected Kenny Carr with the 6th overall pick of the 1977 NBA Draft. In doing so, L.A. passed on future all-stars Bernard King (7th), Jack Sikma (8th), Rickey Green (16th), and Eddie Johnson (49th). So how did the Forward from NC State fare in Purple & Gold? Carr put up 6.2 and 7.4 ppg, respectively, in his first two seasons in the league before the Lakers gave up on their investment 5 games into his third season. Carr would later travel around the league for another 8 seasons as a journeyman, with mildly effective stops in Cleveland, Detroit, and Portland. To the Lakers' credit, they did steal Norm Nixon with the 22nd pick in the same draft year.

4. 1962 NBA Draft -- Leroy Ellis (6th overall pick)
Even great franchises make bad calls sometimes. The Lakers selected this "promising" young big man with the 6th overall choice, bypassing John Havlicek (who was picked next at #7). Ellis was decent in his four seasons with the Lakers, but capped out at 12 ppg in his last season in L.A. However, it wasn't so much what Ellis didn't do, but more what Havlicek did do that came back to haunt the Lakers. Havlicek was a thorn in L.A.'s side for the next decade-plus, one of the key reasons L.A. kept finishing a close second to Boston in the NBA playoffs.

3. 1996 NBA Draft -- Kobe Bryant (13th pick via Charlotte)
Jerry West took a chance in trading long-time crowd favorite Vlade Divac for the unproven, college bypassing Bryant. I don't even think the Logo knew how fortuitous this decision would become. We know the history: Bryant went on to team up with Shaq for 3 titles, and won a 4th without the Big Fella this season. Equally impressive is the fact that in a league marked by player movement and free agency, Bryant has remained in Laker gold for his whole career. Wise decision, Mr. West.

2. 1975 NBA Draft -- David Meyers (2nd overall pick)
After appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in college, Meyers was picked 2nd overall in the 1975 draft, only behind future Hall-of-Famer David Thompson. Meyers went on to play only four seasons in the L, putting up modest averages of 11.2 points and 6.3 boards per outing. Dumbest pick in NBA history, right? Not so fast. After being drafted by the Lakers, he was packaged with three other half-wits and shipped to Milwaukee for Lew Alcindor. We all know what happened next...

Lone remaining jpg. of David Meyers on Google Search

1. 1979 NBA Draft -- Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (1st overall pick)
The Lakers struck gold in landing the first pick in the 1979 draft and made the no-brainer choice to select Magic. The four picks that followed L.A.'s selection? David Greenwood, Bill Cartwright, Greg Kelser, and Sidney Moncrief. I'd say the Lakers made the right decision here. Magic went on to team with Kareem and James in bringing home 5 NBA championships and a plethora of close second's. He was the catalyst of the "Showtime" era and solidified the franchise as the second-best in all of pro basketball.

Final Words:
I flirted with the idea of including the Jerry West and Elgin Baylor selections on this list, but kept them off in the end. Going through the team's draft history, it is easy to see why the Lakers have remained good (or great) for most of their history. Unlike many franchises (ahem, Sam Bowie), they made the right decisions in the offseason.

Jun 11, 2009

Live Game 4 Blog

Keep in mind, this is coming from a Laker fan. Thus, the below observations are completely biased.

1st Quarter:
- Kobe line-drives an 18-footer. 78 seconds in, we get our first teeth-clenching moment.
- Gotta give it to Courtney Lee, he's got an awful lot of confidence for a rookie who blew a game-winning layup and missed two wide open threes to start the game.
- Bynum picks up the obligatory 2nd foul with 8:42 left in the first. True to form, his foul was wasted, not hard enough to prevent a three-point play, not soft enough to avoid the whistle.
- Kobe forces another shot early in the shot clock. Will he ever take the ball to the basket again?
- Skippy throws in his second prayer of the game. He's a different player at home.
- Kobe FINALLY decides to take the ball to the basket and gets a three-point play. The NBA: where amazing happens.
- This is the "hardest" Jeff Van Gundy has seen Howard play for a six minute stretch... in this series... in the games in Orlando... while the Magic have had the lead... and Courtney Lee has two fouls. Riveting stuff.
- Was it irresponsible for ESPN to have the coach's brother commentate these games?
- Speaking of the Van Gundy's, the interview of Papa VG was priceless in game three.
- I love it when Turk complains that he got fouled. It's kind of like watching Bobby Brown protest against domestic abuse. If Bobby Brown had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Tony Battie sighting.
- Orlando fans boo when Kobe rips through, raises up, and draws the foul. Have they ever watched Turkoglu play?
- DJ Mbenga sighting. Drumroll please... Josh Powell sighting.
End of 1st: Magic 24, Lakers 20

2nd Quarter:
- Luke Walton starts things off with a feathery jumper. He has played terrific basketball all playoffs long.
- Proof positive that Breen is an idiot. "J.J. Redick has become a facilitator this year under Stan Van Gundy." I checked the stats: Redick averaged an eye-popping 1.1 apg this season.
- Turk is making himself some money this series. He's playing all-star ball.
- Magic by 10. Maybe their game three shooting (and the Lakers' defense) wasn't a fluke after all.
- In case you were wondering, Marcin Gortat cannot guard Pau Gasol.
- Bynum makes his first legitimate post move in 96 hours. In other news, Americans elect their first black president. Wait...
- Dwight Howard grabs his 47th rebound of the half.
- With no other low post options, L.A. subs-in trainer Gary Vitti. Maybe he will box out Howard.
- Mark Jackson criticizes SVG for not subbing Turkoglu on the last offensive possession. Shockingly, JVG quickly changes the topic of conversation.
Halftime: Magic 49, Lakers 37

3rd Quarter:
- Since when did Brian Scott become the spokesperson for the Lakers?
- Bryant pulls up and hits a three on the slow break. Camera pans the Magic bench as Pietrus drops his warmups.
- Ariza hits his third straight shot, and it's a five-point game. And the Magic just lost 10% of its playoff fan base.
- In breaking news, Kobe likes Hedo as a player.
- Question for SVJ: when a player is one-dimensional and that dimension is failing, why would you keep him in the game? Sub-out Redick.
- The refs confer with Fisher, who calls it Laker ball.
- Maybe Howard shouldn't have sprinted every possession in the first half... he looks winded.
- Orlando looks lost without Turkoglu on the floor.
- In the most amusing play I've seen in recent memory, J.J. Redick tries a Hedo/Kobe pump, lean, & chuck and actually expects a foul to be called.
- I stand corrected. Kobe trying to man up on Howard is the most amusing segment I've seen in recent memory.
End of 3rd: Lakers 67, Magic 63.

4th Quarter:
- SVG tries to weather the storm by starting the fourth with Tony Battie in the lineup. Nice.
- Why doesn't Shannon Brown play in this series? He would give Skippy fits.
- Wow. Pietrus blows the 1-on-0 break. That's a game-losing play right there.
- Did Jameer Nelson gain weight and shrink during his layoff? He looks like Muggsy Bogues tonight.
- After Pietrus hits a three, Kobe hits an impossible three, check that, two, in Pietrus' face. Coincidence? I think not.
- Even JVG is annoyed by the "hand down, man down" phrase at this point...
- Whenever Dwight Howard makes a free throw, I feel like a flock of seagulls has just crapped on my head.
- Pietrus is one of those Stephen Jackson/Travis Outlaw players, the player who has no concept of good basketball play vs. bad basketball play. These types of players tend to play well at the end of games because they have no filter and aren't bothered by the moment (because they don't understand what "the moment" is). 76-75 Magic.
- The lost 10% of June Magic fans are back again.
- David Stern walks over to the Laker's bench and takes back the embroidered "best closer" chair when Kobe misses a wide open three.
- Mark Jackson offers his apologies to SVG for questioning his playing "Muggsy" Nelson in the fourth quarter. JVG bites his tongue.
- Does that "best closer" chair belong to Trevor Ariza?
- Stern calmly walks the chair over to the Magic bench and slides it under Turkoglu as he sits down. Magic by 5 at the timeout.
- Kobe takes a horrendous three as the rest of the team watches. This is getting old.
- Howard misses first of two. This one could make it a two possession game. Shot's up... and out. The Lakers have life.
- Fisher hits the second-biggest shot of his career, and JVG's partiality comes out as he chastises Jameer Nelson for leaving him open.
- 4.6 left, tie game. SVG is contemplating subbing-in Courtney Lee.
- Pietrus misses the buzzer-beater. So much for my above theory.
End of 4th: Lakers 87, Magic 87.

- Lewis starts things off with a "magical" three. Okay, I apologize to anyone who just read that.
- Kobe with two straight. Stern sneaks back to the Magic bench to reclaim the "best closer" chair.
- Pietrus blatantly whacks Bryant on the wrist. No call.
- Howard hits 1-of-2 to make it a tie game with 1:30 left. The Magic team doctor resuscitates SVG.
- Gasol swears in espanol as Nelson hooks his arm on the rebound attempt.
- Fisher hits the third-biggest shot of his career, and Breen finally gets a chance to talk again. Lakers by 3.
- After a Bryant elbow, Nelson's teeth would be intact if he ever kept his mouthguard in his mouth.
- France and Spain square off. Advantage: Spain.
- Game, set, match. Series over, folks.
Final: Lakers 99, Magic 91.

Jun 10, 2009

The 5 Most Polarizing Athletes of this Era

Polarize (v) - "To cause to concentrate about two conflicting or contrasting positions."

In my previous post about Kobe Bryant, I called him the most polarizing figure in sports. With some inspiration from Knee Jerk, I put a little more thought into this claim, identifying the professional athletes who have elicited the most bipartisan reactions from fans in recent years. I started by brainstorming the historical players who met this criteria, but quickly learned that that was far too difficult an exercise. There is no way I could create a responsible list of the all-time most polarizing/controversial players when I either: a) wasn't alive or b) wasn't coherent enough to really get a feel for the reactions they brought forth in fans and the media. Consequently, I've narrowed this list to the 5 most polarizing athletes of the past twenty years.

Honorable Mention: Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Ron Artest, Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley (retired), Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, The Manning Brothers, Pete Rose (retired), Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco (retired).

5. Shaquille O'Neal
The Diesel didn't make this list because he is the center of controversy (like Roger Clemens or Ron Artest). He made this list because ever since he has entered the league there have been two camps: one camp calls O'Neal the best center and most dominating force of his generation (or even all-time), the other says he was simply bigger than anyone else and did not dedicate himself to the game (pointing to his free throw percentage and lack of conditioning). Perhaps the biggest factor in including O'Neal on this list is his media-fueled feud with Kobe Bryant. Since Kobe is the most polarizing athlete in the game, anything Kobe creates a rift amongst fans. Stemming from the Kobe-Shaq feud, Kobe's supporters generally dislike (or even hate) O'Neal and Kobe's naysayers generally praise O'Neal and his accomplishments.

4. Terrell Owens
T.O. stirs up self-inflicted controversy every year. From calling out every quarterback he has ever played with, to crying after a playoff loss, to overdosing on pills, to contract disputes, to self-proclaimed greatness, to crunches in his driveway on ESPN, to trend-setting touchdown celebrations, he is constantly the center of attention. The only reason T.O. isn't higher on this list is that there is a sizeable disparity between the amount of fans who love him and the amount of fans who hate him. Every sports fan with a pulse in San Francisco, Dallas, or Philadelphia dislikes him. Older generation fans generally dislike him, and younger generation fans are split. At one time or another, most fans have at least admired his on-field accomplishments or physical attributes, even if they later made the switch and became T.O.-haters.

3. Alex Rodriguez
Any time a player is dubbed the next big thing, there is bound to be a mixed reaction. That's exactly what happened when Rodriguez came into the league as a protypical young talent. Any time a player gets those types of accolades and clearly believes them to be 100% true, the eaction is even stronger amongst fans. When that player suits up for the most polarizing team in professional sports, these reactions are only further magnified. Rodriguez's record-breaking contract, postseason struggles, MVP trophies, relations with Madonna, and steroid admissions have all elicited mixed reactions and been the focal point of the media. Just like the team he plays for, you must love him or hate him -- there is no middle ground.

2. Barry Bonds
Barry has never been a media darling, even while compiling some of the most prolific stats in his sport's history. There isn't much debate as to whether Bonds is a "likeable" public figure -- he is standoffish, arrogant, and unapproachable by fans. The debate, and the cause of the mixed reactions to Barry, are his statistics. The general assumption is that Barry took steroids for at least a portion of his career. In the process, he broke baseball's most hallowed record and took it from a former player who was endeared by the fans and was still around to witness the feat. Many fans have embraced Barry despite the controversy and have recognized him as a top-5 player of all-time, many others have chastised him and called his statistical contributions fraudulent. In a way, Barry personifies the greater steroid issue that has plagued baseball over the past decade. The rampant use of steroids has created a divide between baseball fans of old and new, where records and history play a bigger role than any other sport. For these reasons, Barry Bonds is the second-most polarizing figure in sports.

1. Kobe Bryant
Kobe wins the top spot on the list by a wide margin, in my opinion. Shaq receives more love than hate, and the other three athletes on the list receive more hate than love. What makes Kobe the most polarizing figure, in the true sense of the word, is that he receives equal parts love and equal parts disdain. For every attribute praised by a Kobe-lover, there is a rebuttal for a Kobe-hater. For every accomplishment, a caveat. Kobe ran Shaq out of L.A. /Shaq couldn't handle sharing the spotlight. Kobe is a "ballhog" / Kobe is the best scorer in the game. Kobe can't win without Shaq / Kobe hasn't had the supporting cast to win without Shaq. The list goes on... and on... and on. The love/hate divide began when Kobe came into the league and grew when he was compared to the most sacred name in hoop history: Michael Jordan. Like A-Rod, Kobe plays for the most polarizing team in his sport, which only intensifies opinions about him. No matter how you slice it, Kobe is the most loved, and hated, player in the NBA. Winning both of these imaginary awards simultaneously makes Kobe Bryant the most polarizing athlete of this era.

In Winning, the Magic Proved They Have No Chance

The Magic played nearly flawless basketball, shooting an astounding 63% from the floor. Five Magic players scored at least 18 points, and Rafer Alston looked like he was a legitimate player (for once). Pietrus went French M.J. on a few shots, and most of the bounces went the way of the home team. A normally cash money Kobe missed five of his ten free throw attempts, and the Lakers had multiple late-game brain freezes. Despite all of these positive factors, the Magic only led by two points with 0.2 seconds left in the game.

After game two, I thought the remainder of the series was a formality. Despite the ultimate outcome of game three, this feeling only got stronger. The Lakers played pretty well, but the Magic played out of their minds. I'd venture to guess Orlando won't have another record-breaking game of 63% rain. I'd also bet Bryant doesn't miss 5 of 10 free throws again in this series. Every key player on Orlando's roster played well, and nobody on Los Angeles' roster exceeded expectations (save Jordan Farmar). Simply put, Orlando hit their historical peak and Los Angeles was at best slightly above their average.

To me, this game provided the most concrete evidence that the Lakers are a better team than the Magic. Orlando played the best they could possibly play, on their home court, against an average Laker performance. Yet they still barely won. This game provided the most concrete evidence that the Magic may hang around for a bit, but they aren't going to win the series. If anything, I expect a split in the 4/5 set and a trip back to L.A. with the Lakers up three-two. If so, the Magic would need ninety-six minutes of game three basketball to win the series. Not happening.

Jun 8, 2009

Kobe Bryant and His Coat of Many Colors

As Kobe hones in on title #4, his supporters are applying the tanning oil in preparation of basking in his glory. It has been seven long years since title #3, and the non-stop chatter about his failure to win a championship without big brother can finally come to an end. To rest can go the argument that his supposed me-first attitude would preclude his teams from winning the ultimate prize. To them (or us, depending on how you see it), Kobe's greatness will finally be undeniable even to the harshest of critics.

Kobe's naysayers, meanwhile, are plotting their angle of attack, brainstorming the ways to undermine his accomplishments and deny his greatness. In actuality, denying his greatness has never been an approach of the naysayers. The chosen approach has generally been to attack Kobe by claiming others are, or were, greater. Even as an outspoken pro-Kobeist, I have never been bothered by this form of "criticism." To me, attacking a player because he falls just short of the greatest ever (M.J.) or the to-be greatest ever (Lebron) isn't criticism at all. It is actually cleverly-disguised praise. To even include Kobe in that conversation with the Jordans, the Magics, the Lebrons, is to concede that he is one of the greatest players to ever play this game.

To reuse the most overused descriptor of Kobe's blossoming legacy, Kobe is downright polarizing. The most polarizing player in all of professional sports, in fact. Ever. In my tenure as a fan, which has included tedious study of the game's forefathers, I have never witnessed or heard of a player who elicited such extreme reactions from fans, who commanded such love & respect while also giving rise to such ill will and hate. He is the individualized New York Yankees.

Since the day Jerry West took that prophetic leap of faith in bringing the young Kobe Bryant to L.A., I have watched closely. As I have studied Kobe Bryant the man, Kobe Bryant the player, Kobe Bryant the public figure, I have witnessed the most primitive yet remarkable transformations. His career thus far can be broken down into four chapters, each of which I feel compelled to expand upon below.

Growing Pains (1996-1999)
When Kobe entered the league as a confused, young kid with a crater-sized chip on his shoulder, I found him to be immature (even for his age). He was at one moment an innocent prototype and the next a conceded egoist. Young Kobe fumbled over words in interviews but had the confidence to seize the moment before his game was polished enough to do so. The commingling of his confidence and his insecurity was perhaps summarized best by his three airball performance in the waning moments against Utah in the 1997 playoffs. A bench player at the time, Kobe stepped into these shots like he was a go-to-guy and singlehandedly wrecked the Lakers' season.

In the early years, Kobe's childlike charm was often overshadowed by an unwarranted arrogance. This was the formula for his polarizing effect on fans. This set the stage for the two camps we are familiar with today: the Kobe-lovers and the Kobe-haters. What made him endearing to many made him despicable to many more. The lovers voted him in as an all-star starter when he was the sixth man for his own team. The haters provided boos and mockery at each opposing arena he set foot in. Nearly thirteen years later, most people haven't wavered from their initial loyalties to these camps.

As Bryant's game developed in seasons two and three, we were exposed to the monster that lived within him. His unquenchable thirst for perfection and unhealthy need for acceptance isolated him from teammates and fan base. Kobe was not misunderstood by the fans so much as he was misunderstood by himself. He tried so desperately to win the favor and respect of the basketball world that he failed to understand what it would take to be embraced. The failure to make ends with humanity meet did not come without effort. Kobe was beyond impressionable, to the point that he released a rap song when he heard he had no street cred, praised M.J. when he heard he was a two-three imposter, and fed Shaq when he heard he was a ballhog. Sometimes too much is not enough -- Kobe dug his own public relations grave through these futile attempts.

Blemished Supremacy (1999-2003)
By the time the 1999-2000 season rolled around, Kobe had exhausted all efforts to be the NBA's poster boy. Kobe turned his cheek to the criticism, embarking on a journey to prove all naysayers wrong. In the process, he had built a mini-dynasty on the cape of a in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal.

Bryant must have thought that winning would bridge the gap between unimpressed fan and devoid Kobe. Kobe the competitor was birthed out of his undisguised worship of Michael Jordan (trust me, Kobe's mannerisms and career track offer undeniable proof that his steps were paved by the observance of His Airness), and he saw the fan-filled fruit that was cultivated by Jordan's championships. I can't say I blame him.

Three championships later, Kobe's public persona had only experienced subtle changes. The three-peat stimulated talk of basketball immortality, but his character flaws and the looming shadow of Shaq dwarfed the level of respect that he should have received. Winning soon became habit more than fulfilling, and a rift between the two stars left most on the lovable giant's side. This was the beginning of the end for the Shaq-Kobe duo and the Lakers' spot at the top of the hill.

Failure (2003-2007)
After the threepeat, winning was not enough for Kobe. He had to be revered as the best player in the league, but first he had to be revered as the best player on his team. For the first time since pre-2000 Kobe, we saw his stubborn side again. Consequently, Kobe's Lakers were upended in the NBA Finals by a far less talented Detroit squad. Team's triumph over individual led many to believe that Kobe was a cancerous presence for the purple & gold. Upon Shaq's departure and subsequent success in Miami, these beliefs were strengthened and perpetuated by the media. By this time, he held the undisputed title of best two guard in basketball, but was excommunicated after legal troubles and a lack of winning without the Diesel.

Despite all of his individual accomplishments, Kobe was also without the ultimate individual accolade: an MVP trophy. It is hard to say whether he was more bothered by the losing or by watching Steve Nash hoist back-to-back MVP trophies. His "look-at-me-now" performances over this period suggest the latter was equally important as the former. Kobe put up an astounding 35.4 ppg in the 2005-06 season despite his team's meager 8th place finish. Along the way, he scored over 60 points twice, including the absurd 81-point outing. Inexplicably, Bryant decided to refuse shots in game seven against Phoenix in the same season, proving a point at the expense of his team.

During this middling period between championships, Bryant took on a me-against-the-world attitude. It was a strange phenomenon where Kobe was so much better than anyone else that he actually controlled his own statistical output. He was anything but reactive to the defense, opting instead to oscillate between deadeye scorer and facilitator. This was done partially as an experiment, to determine the best formula for winning while playing on team with many imperfections. But more than anything else, it was done to prove that he was just that good. Rather than channeling his superiority in a fashion that would better the play of his team, Kobe channeled his superiority to engage in Kobe vs. Media, Kobe vs. Fan, Kobe vs. Lakers, and Kobe vs. Kobe battles. In the process, Kobe blasted his teammates when they failed and was jealous when they succeeded.

By the summer of 2007, Kobe appeared half-ready to give up. He had failed to win a championship without Shaq, had failed to win an MVP by his own devices, and had failed to win the affection of the basketball world by being jagged. His trade demands and public criticism of Andrew Bynum were an ugly display of his selfishness and frustration, and I thought he was destined for a general admission ticket to the hall of fame when he could have sat courtside.

Redemption (2008-Present)
After the near-implosion of the Lakers in the summer of 2007, Jerry Buss delivered in a big way by stealing Pau Gasol. By doing so, Buss showed Kobe that he was still more concerned with building a present-day winner than developing young talent for the future. This transaction in and of itself breathed new life into Kobe, and for the first time since Shaq's departure he was confident in the team's direction.

With this new confidence, Kobe matured overnight as a player. Until then, all of Kobe's efforts to put the team ahead of himself were visibly fabricated, unauthentic. In early 2008, Kobe passed because teammates were open and shot because he was open. His predetermined game approaches were no longer, and this translated to more wins than losses. Adding a player of Gasol's caliber surely didn't hurt the Lakers' on-court performance, but Kobe's transformation was the most important factor in the equation.

Although his statistics in 2007-08 were similar to the numbers he posted in the previous two seasons (maybe even worse), Kobe's transformation into an authentic leader did not go unnoticed. Kobe received his first NBA MVP award at the conclusion of the regular season, and was showered with praise until the Lakers' six-game failure to the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Even in ultimate defeat, the majority of the external blame was placed on the Lakers' lack of toughness inside rather than Kobe's inability to win the big one.

While Kobe's athleticism has slightly deteriorated over the past several months and Lebron has been ushered in as the newly crowned king of the league, we have witnessed the most effective basketball of Kobe's career during this year's playoffs. He has taken over in stretches and looked mortal in others, but for the first time in his career he appears to be playing reactive basketball without reacting to his critics' faulty logic. His focus has been nothing short of mesmerizing, and his movements calculated but improvizational.
In 2009, it has all clicked for the Mamba -- just in time to put a cap on his legacy with his fourth championship as a player and his first as a true leader. When he hoists that trophy as an NBA champion later this week, his lovers will still love and his haters will still hate. That's just the way it's always going to be. I just wish that in love or in hate, we would look at him for what he's become and not what he hasn't.

Jun 7, 2009

The Magic Threw Away Game Two... and the Series.

Sorry, Cinderella... the shoe doesn't fit this time.

Just got done with the most anticlimactic 3 hours of back-and-forth basketball I've ever been exposed to. I'm a Laker fan, the Lakers won an overtime game, and there were something like 21 lead changes in the fourth quarter & overtime combined. That's the type of stuff instant classics are made of, right? Not so much. Despite all of the makings of a thriller, I walked away from the television feeling empty.

Maybe it was the style of the game, with both teams struggling to reach 90 without the overtime period. Maybe it was the continuation of strange officiating that detracted from the drama within the matchup (the phantom foul calls in Kobe's favor in the fourth quarter, the failure to call goaltending when Howard reached through the rim to block Gasol's layup, Turkoglu initiating contact every time he touched the ball and rarely getting called for a foul, etc.). I can't put my finger on exactly why I wasn't nervous during the game or elated after the game, but all of the feelings that I had during the Rockets-Lakers & Nuggets-Lakers series' were no-shows. I don't think there was one moment during the game that I felt nervous or sat on the edge of my seat, which is really odd considering all that transpired.

With that off my plate, I'd like to bid farewell to Orlando's 2009 title hopes. The Lakers are bound to have at least one of their dominating performances (where they are focused & unbeatable) sprinkled amongst the three-game set in Orlando, and there is virtually no way the Magic will win two straight in L.A. if it comes to that. Under no circumstances do I see Orlando winning four of five, with two of those games in Staples. Not with their lack of consistent point guard play, not with their failure to effectively utilize Dwight Howard, not with Tony Battie and J.J. Redick playing key minutes, not with their severe handicap in the coaching matchup, and certainly not with Kobe Bryant on the other team.

Before signing out, a few observations I took away from game two:

  • Orlando's players do not respect Stan Van Gundy or what he has to say to them. As if Shaq's vocal criticism in '06 wasn't enough, this probably should have been obvious to me after a normally reserved Dwight Howard disrespected him in front of the national media during these playoffs. But until tonight, I thought the criticism directed toward SVG was somewhat unwarranted, as he has a pretty good track record in terms of wins & losses. Tonight, I saw ESPN's cameras pan in on multiple huddles where players were taking part in side conversations or appeared to be completely tuning out what he had to say. This was also evident during his halftime speech ("mic'd up" by ESPN), where not a single player was making eye contact with the coach and as a whole looked indifferent.

  • Kobe is much more difficult to analyze now than he was even a few rounds ago. At one moment he appears to be on a violent mission, shooting death stares at his teammates and hitting impossible shots in cold blood. The next minute he is jovial, sharing laughs with said teammates and perfectly content in the decoy role. It used to be that Kobe would enter a game with a predetermined approach. He would carry out this approach to a flaw, either by forcing up shots in his "scoring Kobe" mode or passing up wide open looks in his "passing Kobe" mode. Now, his approach is changing from quarter-to-quarter or even possession-to-possession. I still haven't fully embraced the notion that his behavior on the offensive end is entirely reactive (as opposed to predetermined), but he has recently made a point to tell us that he is "taking what the defense gives him" in every interview. Really? Not only do I see nobody in pinstripes (individually, or collectively) who is capable of dictating his approach to the game through their defense, but I also think Kobe is entirely too analytical and stubborn to be patient in his strategic decisions. I still think that on certain possessions he decides that he is going to shoot regardless of the defensive front, or that he is going to get others involved regardless of whether or not he has an open look. I will probably write another post addressing these opinions separately in the near future.

  • Hedo Turkoglu is more physical than his reputation. I never noticed, but Turkoglu initiates contact almost every time he touches the ball and is very crafty in getting defenders in the air. He was called for a push-off on one critical possession late in the game, but overall his initiation of contact paid dividends via free-throws. As much as the Lakers claim to be a tough team, I still see them struggle when the game becomes more physical. Physicality was the only reason an injury-plagued Houston team made round two a series, and Denver pushed the Lakers around in the paint all series long in the WCF.

Until next time...

Jun 5, 2009

How the Magic can Win this Series

SVG's Game One Surprise: Tony Battie?

Game One Reaction

After last night's bludgeoning, few have given the Magic a chance to win this series. Sure, the commentators have gone out of their way to remind us that this is just "one game," and that more often than not a beatdown does not carry over to the next game. To me, this is a clever way of promoting the series and keeping viewers interested. After all, disinterested fans lead to poor ratings and the commentators are employed by the networks who care about that sort of thing.

That said, this series is far from over. I know the Magic were outshot, outdefended, and just plain outclassed in game one. We all witnessed just how good a focused Laker team really is, and the Magic's weaknesses were certainly exposed (namely the lack of a second post player and too much reliance on outside shooting). Clearly, if the Lakers continue to play this way the series could be over in four games. But as we have seen in these playoffs, the Lakers don't play this way every game. It seems every game, our impression of the Lakers flipflops between heartless and determined. Phil Jackson's Jekyll & Hyde analogy wasn't too far off.

Unfortunately for the Magic, both versions of the Lakers are better than most teams in the NBA. Even on down nights, they have the talent and experience to keep things close. The Magic must play near-perfect basketball to beat this juggernaut, and even then I'm not sure it can be done in a seven-game series. Nevertheless, I've put together a gameplan for Orlando to shock the world and win this series:

1. Feed the Beast, Even When in Foul Trouble
The Magic must feed the ball to Howard early and often. Regardless of the foul situation, they must be persistent on this front. Nobody on the Lakers has the strength to guard him down low, despite the common belief that Howard has no post moves. Bynum is the Lakers' bulkiest threat, and Howard has eaten him alive when given the opportunity.

I know it's tempting for Stan Van Gundy to monitor his star's fouls. Much has been made of Howard's foul troubles in these playoffs and the detrimental effect it has on the team. I know he picked up a few offensive fouls in game one and feeding him the ball increases the likelihood of said foul trouble. I know the Lakers are sagging and positioning help defenders to take charges when Howard makes his predictable spin move.

I understand how these factors would play into SVG's strategy, but I still don't agree with his cautious approach. I think he needs to throw all these fears out the window and take his chances. The Magic aren't going to win this series playing scared. They aren't going to win this series holding back Howard, as he is the only significant positional advantage that the Magic have in this series. To win, the Magic must force-feed their star until he fouls out. At worst, this would occur in 25 minutes of court time. This would eventually force double-teams from the Lakers and would open up the three-point line for Orlando's shooters, who didn't have good looks at the basket in game one. It would also force the Lakers into foul trouble of their own.

2. Mix Things Up
When Bynum picks up his inevitable second foul midway through the first quarter, put Gortat in the game alongside Howard. Slide Lewis to the three and Turkoglu to the two. Odom would then be forced to cover Gortat and Gasol may pick up some cheap fouls trying to contain Howard. Lewis would have easier looks against shorter defenders (without Odom guarding him), and Kobe would have to exert more of an effort on defense against Turkoglu than he does against Courtney Lee.

In game one, it was as if the Magic were playing reactive basketball instead of forcing the Lakers' hand. They were reluctant to play Gortat and Howard at the same time for any significant stretches of the game, and their best attempt to match the Lakers' size was by inserting seldom-used Tony Battie into the game in the second quarter. Battie looked lost; it was as if he 1) hadn't picked up a basketball in 8 months, 2) forgot that he can't shoot midrange jumpers and/or 3) knew he wouldn't play again and wanted to get up as many shots as possible in the meantime.

3) Revise the Jameer Nelson Experiment
Nelson looked great for the first three minutes in the second quarter, before his I.R. legs showed themselves. I'm not really sure what SVG was trying to do by playing Jameer the entire second quarter, even as the Lakers mounted a run. He must have not noticed that his team actually led after the first quarter with Alston at the point.

I'm not necessarily opposed to tinkering with lineups (even in the finals), but I think SVG should change his approach with Nelson. I don't agree with Mark Jackson's assessment that the Magic should either play him starter minutes or bench him. I think Nelson brings some different elements to their offense that can still be valuable in shorter stints. He should play the true backup role (15-18 minutes) rather than instituting a platoon system at the point. The Magic made it this far with Alston at the reins, and Skip is the type of player who needs to get quantity minutes to find a rhythm. By playing each of these guys equal minutes, they both become less effective.

4) Increase Pietrus' Minutes
Mikael Pietrus shot horribly in game one and did little to slow Kobe Bryant. However, my observation was that the other Magic defenders did a worse job on Kobe and Pietrus was one of the few Magic players who didn't look scared by the Staples lights. Pietrus showed us in the Cleveland series that he is capable of hitting big shots and his early-game misses against L.A. in game one didn't cause him to shy away from open looks later in the game. I've gotta believe that his shots will start to fall soon enough, and this could provide the scoring spark the Magic desperately need.

5) Play the Zone
The Magic should insert a pseudo two-three zone or box-and-one defense for part of game two. While the Lakers have a few players with decent range, I'd rather take my chances on Luke Walton's or Trevor Ariza's three-point shooting than on Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the post. Much has been made of the Lakers' 55-41 advantage on the glass in game one, but that was mostly due to Orlando's poor shooting (30%!) leading to defensive rebounds for L.A. The real problem was L.A.'s 56 points in the paint. The Magic don't have the quickness on the perimeter or the size down low (outside of foul-prone Howard) to keep the Lakers away from the rim, so a straight man-to-man defense is not going to work. If Orlando's players can find bodies when shots go up, the zone could be very effective in frustrating L.A. If nothing else it would give the Lakers a different look, one that they probably haven't prepared for.

Jun 4, 2009

Game One is Here!

Game one has finally arrived, and I couldn't be more excited. Even though the Magic wrapped up their series with the Cavs just 5 short days ago, it feels like it's been months since the last NBA telecast. So long, in fact, that I felt compelled to pick up the pencils and create some artwork of the Finals' two best players (see above).

For game one, I'll keep the predictions short and sweet. The first half will be a "feeling out" period for both of the teams, and Finals jitters will show through uncharacteristic turnovers and overall sloppy play. By the second half, the teams will have locked in and good basketball will be played. I'm predicting unexpected contributions from Sasha Vujacic (9 points, all from the three-point line) and Courtney Lee (15 points). I'm predicting a down game from Rashard Lewis, who will finish with 12 points and shoot below 40%. The Staples Center crowd will prove to be too much for Orlando in a seesaw battle. Lakers by 8.

Jun 3, 2009

Rashard Lewis and the Importance of #2

Continuing in my quest to chronicle role players, I turn to the opposition. Sure, it's hard to argue that a player with two all-star berths and multiple 20 ppg seasons is a "role player," but Rashard Lewis is still a player that is often overlooked. This is partially due to the fact he has never played in a large market, but is also due to his demeanor and style of play. I don't think Lewis is either over- or underrated, but I do think that he has been under-analyzed. Thus, the need for a player profile.

Rashard Lewis has been overlooked since he was a teenager. When he bypassed college for the pros in 1998, he was an intriguing prospect to the point that he was asked to sit in the Green Room on draft night. However, Lewis was the last man standing in the Green Room, a la Brady Quinn. When the dust settled, Seattle stole him with the 32nd pick. As a point of reference, 1998 was the year Michael Olowokandi was picked #1 and Raef LaFrenz was picked #3.

Lewis was probably overlooked because GM's hadn't fully embraced the new regime at the time of his arrival. They hadn't foreseen the impending transforming of the game where all 5 players must be able to score in a variety of ways. They hadn't foreseen the value that could be derived from a 4-man who could stretch the defense or the forthcoming defensive rule changes that would allow teams to hide weak individual defenders behind zone defenses. Outside of Bird, tall shooters hadn't made their mark on the game and GM's still believed that there were five distinct positions with five distinct skillset requirements. (NOTE: This thinking was evidenced further by the Olowokandi pick at #1 and Tractor-Traylor at #6). As such, Lewis was too slight to bang down low as a 4, and lacked the ballhandling & lateral quickness to play on the wing. He was a 'tweener, a distinction that only had negative connotations at the time.

Another factor in Lewis' descent on the draft board was that the 1998 draft class included Antawn Jamison (#4), Nowitzki (#9), and Al Harrington (#25). Even Raef LaFrenz (#3) and Michael Doleac (#12) were more highly-coveted than Lewis at the time. Lewis was considered a second-tier version of these players, and aside from Garnett executives were still skeptical about a player's ability to transition to the NBA without intercollegiate experience.

As time passed, the NBA's transformation became more apparent. Nowitzki transcended the game as the first 7-footer who could play effectively from the 3-point line in, but other aforementioned members of the '98 draft class (Jamison & Lewis) were part of the transformation, as well. In fact, today's team builds are due in large part to the contributions of the draft class of '98. Orlando's current composition of 4 shooters and a big man would have been considered foolish just 10 short years ago. Today, range from the four-spot is considered a necessity.

As stated earlier, Lewis has always done most of his damage behind-the-scenes. He shared the spotlight with Ray Allen in Seattle, and shares it with Dwight Howard in Orlando. Lewis is a rarity in that he shows glimpses of being a franchise-type player (see big shots against Cleveland in the Conference Finals) and there are also times when he's seemingly invisible on the court. It's as if he's comfortable with the spotlight, but equally content playing second- or third-fiddle. Call it Lamar Odom Syndrome.

Until this season, Lewis had never been considered a "winner" in quantitative terms. He had played many seasons of losing basketball, and his greatest accomplishment from a win/loss standpoint had been a trip to the second round with Seattle. When he signed that ridiculous contract with Orlando in '07, skeptics were quick to point out his track record of losing and his incapability to play the star role. Why pay a guy star dollars if he couldn't play the part of a star?

Well, like everything else, opinions change. We are now embracing the idea that Rashard Lewis was never put in a position to win. Maybe he is capable of being a star, but flourishes as a secondary option. Maybe Lewis never desired to hold the key to a basketball city's championship aspirations. Maybe, just maybe, Lewis lacks the intangibles or the "win at all costs" mentality required of a winning star. If put in the #1 role, maybe Lewis' teams would have been destined for mediocrity. As crazy as it sounds, maybe Lewis yearned for the #2 role where he could continue in his predestined trade without the level of praise and criticism that attaches itself to a bona fide #1.
Game-Winner vs. Cleveland. He's even got #2 Emotion.

This isn't the first time a phenom has saved his best for when he became second best. It is becoming more and more evident that championship teams need players with star pedigrees to fill secondary roles. Pippen was the enabler for the Bulls' championships (disgruntled or not) and Parker/Ginobili were a huge part of the Spurs' championship parades as well. The Cavs couldn't do it in '07 with one star, and neither could the Sixers in '01. On the flip side, only the Pistons of '04 have done it without at least one brand name.

But while it seems rather simple -- teams are at an advantage having multiple threats on the court -- it is not always as easily done as it is said. The deepest pockets in the league have tried and failed to build team environments where multiple big names (and games) can coexist. It may work for one season, but it is often difficult to sustain this type of environment successfully. The ego-to-skill ratio must be less than 1-to-1. For as the tides become rocky and adversity strikes, most players of this caliber have a difficult time accepting the criticism without deflecting blame. We saw the failed experiment of four #1's in L.A. in '04. To be accurate, we saw the failed experiment of two #1's in L.A. in '04. If Kobe or Shaq would have been willing to concede a few shots, or interviews, or prideful moments, we would have seen five or six straight titles instead of three.

For it to work, one of the stars must be humble enough to accept the #2 role. He must be capable of delivering in #1 fashion, but content receiving #2 attention. The Celtics found the right personalities to pull it off last year. The Magic and Lakers have found the right personalities to pull it off this year. For all of his god-given ability, it is rare to hear Pau Gasol gripe about touches (although, ironically enough he did have these qualms against the Nuggets), and it is even more rare to hear those types of complaints out of Rashard Lewis.

Some may call it timidness, others unselfishness. I prefer self-awareness. Rashard Lewis' self-awareness has propelled the Magic to their first finals berth since the mid-nineties. He's willingly accepted a back seat in Dwight Howard's car. He's willingly accepted an unrecognized voice and an uncelebrated celebrity. He knows that Dwight Howard is the star and the face of this franchise, and that doesn't seem to bother him one bit. If it did, his face would have been photoshopped into one of TNT's "Gone Fishing" mosaics after the first round.

If the last twenty years has taught NBA GM's anything, it should be this: when shopping for sidekicks, start with guys who don't need a lot of coddling. Make pushes for Pau Gasol, Rashard Lewis, David West; steer clear of Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Allen Iverson. Follow this rule, and championships may be attainable.

Jun 2, 2009

Player Profile: Derek Fisher

Derek Fisher doesn't get much publicity. He's rarely asked to take the podium for postgame interviews, hasn't had his name etched into the Hollywood walk of fame, and his house hasn't been featured on "Cribs." On the national scene, Fisher is just "that" guy, capable of keeping a job but incapable of selling jerseys. Even amongst the NBA's most diehard of fans, I'd be willing to bet most couldn't name Fisher's alma mater. Fisher probably runs errands at local strip malls without getting much attention.

D-Fish's lack of notoriety is quite remarkable, all things considered. After all, he is the starting point guard for the team favored to win the NBA Championship. He has won three titles. His miraculous shot against San Antonio in '04 did salvage L.A.'s chances at a four-peat. He has earned the trust and confidence of the most skeptical and condescending superstar in pro sports (Kobe). Phil Jackson did draw up the last shot of Game 2 against the Nuggets for him (not Kobe). He has made the most of his abilities. He does leave it on the court every night. He did skip a critical playoff game to tend to his ailing daughter. He does play the game the right way. But to most of us, none of that matters.

Overshadowed in the city of angels by the brighter stars of Kobe, Pau, Lamar, Phil, Jerry, and Jack, Fisher just goes about his business. He comes in early and stays late. He studies film to the point that mental lapses are a rarity. He prefers the standard chest back rather than going behind the back. And for these throwback tendencies, Derek Fisher might be the least sexy player in the entire NBA (and the least sexy to write a blog about, for that matter). And to most of us, that does matter.

My guess is that Derek Fisher could care less about what matters to us, though. His approach has always been substance over form. In a league of Hummers, Benzes, and Beamers, Derek Fisher is a Ford Taurus. Low maintenance, limited features, consistent performance. Consistency equates to boredom in the eyes of most NBA beholders. Derek Fisher's game is not aesthetically-pleasing and his stats are not spectacular. We know Fisher is good for 12 points, 5 assists, and a clutch jumper. We seldom like what we know.

I find this to be an unfortunate reminder of what the NBA has become for us fans. Overachievers aren't exalted like they once were. We favor the high risk, high reward guys over the guys who seemingly do more with less. NBA GM's see it the same way. Why else would Tyrus Thomas be chosen ahead of Brandon Roy in the draft? As fans or as executives, we're willing to take the risk that an inconsistent or underdeveloped player will be a bust if there is a glimmer of hope he could become a superstar. We don't pack the house for Fisher's 12 and 5, we pack the house for Greg Oden's 20 and 10, or Greg Oden's 4 and 2. We pack the house for Ron Artest's ejection and we pack the house for Chris Anderson's arm flaps and we'll pack the house for Ricky Rubio's seven turnovers.

These days, Derek Fisher is playing blue-collar ball in a sport that is no longer blue-collar. He is relying on wits and experience to hedge against his painfully obvious physical decline. But while he has failed to successfully chase the younger point guards in these playoffs, he has remained a professional. Despite his decay, he hasn't gone Scottie Pippen on us by turning into a crotchety old man, unwilling to let go. And for these reasons, we choose to neither praise him nor ridicule him. To slander the 2009 Derek Fisher would be nearly as sacrilegious for a basketball fan as it would be to love his game.

When the Staples lights come on Thursday night, we will tune in to the broadcast and tune out Fisher's game. We will watch intently for Dwight Howard's foul count, Rashard Lewis' success rate from the three-point line, Stan Van Gundy's animated facial expressions, Kobe's preference between assassin or facilitator, Lamar Odom's level of effort, and the Lakers' persistence (or lack thereof) in getting the ball to Gasol in the post. Knowingly or not, we have already come to the conclusion that Derek Fisher will be neither great nor horrible. He is the epitome of afterthought, and as a Laker fan, I'm okay with that. I'm okay with it because I know that when those lights come on, Derek Fisher will be ready to play -- whether we're paying attention or not.

Jun 1, 2009

2009 NBA Finals Preview

I am about to step into the realm of NBA blogger redundancy. Over the next few days, every armchair expert in the blogosphere will be detailing his/her failproof assessment of how the Finals will be won and lost. Nevertheless, I'll add to the e-pile of meaningless analyses by giving my own two cents. Here goes, position by position (Note: with the way the NBA is played today in terms of zone defenses & double-teams, position-by-position analysis is kind of silly but it still provides the best basis for player comparisons)...

Point Guard: Rafer Alston/Anthony Johnson vs. Derek Fisher/Shannon Brown/Jordan Farmar
Neither group is among the NBA elite, which begs the question: does a team really need an upper-echelon point guard to win a championship? I did some research, and the answer is often times "no." In fact, the league's three best true point guards haven't won a title yet (CP3, Nash, & Deron Williams). What a championship team does need is a serviceable point guard who knows his role and doesn't make dumb mistakes (see all Bulls point guards of the 90's and Laker point guards earlier this decade).

The Lakers and Magic both have role players for point guards, but Alston is the only one in this group who has proven that he can score 20+ any given game in these playoffs. The Lakers' most visible weakness during these playoffs has been their defense at the point of attack and have been burned perpetually by quick (or savvy in the case of Billups) point guards. Sure, Derek Fisher has the experience and will knock down a couple of momentum-changing shots and should have an easier time chasing around Rafer Alston (or, rather, monitoring him on the three point line) than he did Williams, Brooks, or Billups. However, the Magic have a decisive advantage at the point guard spot in my opinion.

Advantage: Magic by a decent margin.

Shooting Guard: Courtney Lee/Mikael Pietrus vs. Kobe Bryant/Sasha Vujacic
Lee has to be the best player in the NBA with a girl's first name. I love the way he plays and has been the x-factor in a few games during these playoffs. Pietrus did a terrific job of holding Lebron James to 38.5 ppg in the Eastern Conference Finals (sorry, I had to throw that in after the TNT crew consistently pointed out how tough he was making things on King James). In all seriousness, both of these players bring athleticism, three-point shooting, and defensive toughness to the Magic's backcourt. They are perfect role players for a championship-caliber team.

I'll limit the superlatives in describing Bryant and take a plain vanilla, fact-based approach. Kobe is the best shooting guard in the world. He has already played in four NBA Finals and won three championships. He is the most competitive man playing this sport, and the most feared late-game shooter on the planet. Vujacic and his other backups are terrible, but that doesn't matter since Kobe will be playing 40+ minutes per game this series.

Somewhere, Dahntay Jones is smiling

Advantage: Lakers in a landslide.

Small Forward: Hedo Turkoglu/Mikael Pietrus vs. Trevor Ariza/Luke Walton/Lamar Odom
Turkoglu has been nails in the fourth quarter during the regular season and in the playoffs. In late-game situations, he seems to always come up with a big bucket or assist. In fact, he averaged more assists/game than Alston against Cleveland in the playoffs as a whole. Turkoglu created mismatches against Cleveland when Lebron wasn't guarding him, using his rare combination of size (6'10), outside shooting (1.5 threes/game), and vision (6.7 apg) to score or set up teammates. Pietrus was mentioned earlier in the shooting guard analysis, but with the Magic's lack of depth (8-man rotation), he gets many minutes at the three. He's Orlando's best spark off the bench and a versatile defender. I'm expecting big minutes out of him to match up with Kobe or Ariza.

Trevor Ariza has been a media darling this postseason. Adding a three-point shot to his already-imposing defensive presence and athleticism, he has been the perfect complement to Bryant (namely because Kobe doesn't have to expend as much energy on the defensive end as in years past). Odom is one of the biggest enigmas in the league, no-showing one night and looking like the most talented player on the court the next. His back problems have been well-chronicled, but a little cortizone should do the trick this series. After all, it is the NBA Finals. A lot will be discovered about Odom's heart and competitiveness in this series, and I see him doing a better job on Turkoglu/Lewis than Cleveland did. Luke Walton will get limited (but valuable) minutes in this series with his headiness coming at a premium in crucial junctures of the games.

Advantage: Toss-up. I like L.A.'s depth, but Turkoglu has been the most consistent player in this group.

The Pride of Turkey

Power Forward: Rashard Lewis vs. Pau Gasol
There is nothing "power"-ful about Rashard Lewis, but he could create some problems in this series. He has been lights-out in the clutch, upstaging Lebron with his late-game heroics in game 1 and game 4. The Lakers will be forced out of their traditional gameplan that includes heavy minutes with Bynum and Gasol on the court at the same time. Neither of these Laker bigs can stay with Lewis on the perimeter, and I'm guessing Jackson will have to adjust his strategy after Lewis drains a few uncontested threes. This should be the most intriguing chess match of the series, as Lewis also won't be able to match up with Gasol or Bynum down low.

Gasol is the league's most skilled 7-footer outside of Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. He is adept around the basket with either hand, can put the ball on the floor, shoots the 15-footer efficiently, and is an excellent passer. For what he lacks in brawn, he makes up for in skill and finesse. If the Magic put Dwight Howard on him, Howard is sure to get in early foul trouble. If the Magic put Lewis on him, Gasol will score at ease in the post. If Gortat guards him, all of the above apply. The Lakers would be foolish if they avoid Gasol in the post like they did for much of the Denver series as the Magic clearly have nobody (outside of Howard, who the Magic will be protecting from foul trouble) that can even pretend to guard him. This is probably the biggest matchup nightmare for either team in the series.

Advantage: Lakers.

Center: Dwight Howard/Marcin Gortat vs. Andrew Bynum/DJ Mbenga/Josh Powell
Howard is an absolute beast. He drove, elbowed, and dunked his way to forty points in the series-clinching victory agains the Cavs. Illgauskas looked like Robert Swift trying to guard him. I listed three Laker centers, including two who rarely see the court, because Bynum will be in foul trouble early in the first quarter of every game. Phil will be forced to dig deep into his bench and play hack-a-Dwight during parts of this series. While the Lakers may be the best-equipped team (aside from Boston) to guard Howard, there is no stopping him. In fact, there probably isn't even slowing him down. The only hope the Lakers have here is that Van Gundy and his band of perimeter shooters will forget about their stud in the middle. That, or he'll be watching the game from the bench with foul trouble.

Andrew Bynum hasn't looked very good this postseason, on or off the court. He has showed little desire to block out or play sound defense, opting instead to wait in the paint for rebounds and chase blocked shots. He will look terrible in this series. If Bynum continues to watch rebounds instead of blocking out (which I think he will), Howard will eat him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the Nuggets could dominate the offensive glass against L.A., what will Howard do? Scary thought for Laker fans. The Lakers can take some comfort in knowing that their bench is loaded with big bodies to foul Dwight. A foul-fest is exactly what I foresee in this series, and the Lakers should hope that it results in early foul trouble for Howard.

Advantage: Magic by a mile.

Keys to Winning -- Orlando:
The Magic's keys to winning are quite simple & obvious. For Orlando to win, it must keep Dwight Howard out of foul trouble. That means keeping him on Bynum and in position to challenge shots without fouling. The Magic's weakside help defenders (other than Howard) must do a better job than they did against Cleveland, because L.A. has more than one player that must be defended.

The Magic also have to knock down the three-point shot with regularity. They have lived & died by the three all season, and this series will be no different. If Orlando can hit three-point shots with consistency, the Lakers will be forced to play honest defense and leave Howard in one-on-one situations in the post. Nobody on the Lakers (or in the league for that matter) is strong enough to keep Howard out of the paint by himself. Howard needs to have a few 20-20 games for the Magic to win this series.

Keys to Winning -- Los Angeles:
The Lakers' keys to winning are also quite simple, and they revolve around Dwight Howard. L.A. must get Howard into early foul trouble. If they can do this, the Magic will become one-dimensional with the three-point shot as their only source of scoring. The Lakers have the quickness & depth to play the Magic on the three-point line if they aren't forced to double-team Howard.
The Lakers also must be disciplined on the defensive glass. Denver's offensive rebounding is what made the Western Conference Finals a series. Possession after possession, the Lakers' bigs turned their heads and watched the ball coming off the rim instead of blocking out. This same mistake cannot be made against Orlando, as Howard feasts on putback opportunities. If the Lakers are smart, they will put two guys on Howard's body on every shot attempt.
Lastly, the Lakers have to keep the tempo up. The Magic only play 8 guys, while the Lakers prefer a 10- or 11-man rotation. L.A. must push the ball at every opportunity and get easy fast break buckets. They should trap and apply full-court pressure for the entire game, as Alston is sometimes turnover-prone and Anthony Johnson doesn't have his wheels anymore. Six guys will be playing 30+ minutes for the Magic, and 7-8 (Johnson and Gortat) will be used sparingly. A fast-paced game will tire out the Magic and play into the Lakers' favor.

Additional Thoughts/Analysis:
This should be a very interesting series. One of these teams is going to have to change their strategy, as the Magic like to put Dwight down low and play four-wide and the Lakers prefer power-ball with two seven-footers on the court. If the Magic can make their threes, the Lakers will have to respond by subbing on of the seven-footers. If the Magic miss their threes, the Magic will have to insert size into their lineup, an area that is a glaring weakness outside of Howard.
Cleveland lost to Orlando because nobody outside of James (who was asked to do everything on both ends of the floor) could cover Turkoglu or Lewis. While Howard's box scores stood out, those two guys were the difference-makers in the series. L.A. is much better equipped to match up with Turkoglu & Lewis. Between Kobe, Ariza, Odom, and to a certain extent Walton & Vujacic, the Lakers have the range and athleticism to give Lewis & Turkoglu fits.
On the other side of the ball, the Magic have a trio of defenders that will be charged with covering Kobe. Pietrus, Lee, and Turkoglu all offer distinct defensive skillsets to slow Bryant down. Lee has more quickness than anyone who guarded Bryant against Denver. Pietrus is your classic athletic defender a la Trevor Ariza. Turkoglu is too slow to keep in front of Bryant, but can use his body and length to alter some shots. At the end of the day, Kobe will be Kobe and probably average close to thirty in the series. If he chooses to absorb double teams and be a passer as he did in games five & six versus Denver, the Lakers will benefit greatly. If he chooses to be the hero and forces difficult shots, it could be a long series for L.A.

Overall Prediction:
The Lakers have too much depth and versatility for the Magic to make this a seven-game series. I foresee Orlando winning two games: one by virtue of a dominant performance by Howard and one by virtue of a barrage of three-point shots by the Magic's perimeter players. As discussed above, the Lakers have a wide range of weapons that can be deployed and have peaked at the right time during these playoffs. Although L.A. has shown a tendency to become complacent, I think they'll come out with a fire as they try to avenge their 2008 Finals defeat. If by some miracle this series does go seven games, I like the Lakers' chances in Staples Center and with all their big-game experience. Lakers in six.