Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I'm Starting To Get Excited & That Makes Me Nervous

I didn't want to write this post too early because the NBA season is very long, but I saw this Spurs team the other night live and the only words I have is "The Spurs are really good".  Listen, it's still really early and the schedule hasn't been the toughest but all in all I don't think any Spurs fan is complaining about the first 23 games.

The most encouraging part about this start is the versatility this team has shown.  I love what Manu is bringing and I really have no desire for any sort of normalization between the French and I, but Tony Parker has looked great too.  The big difference between this team and the last couple of seasons is how deep the Spurs are at the guard positions.  James Anderson's injury has opened the door for Gary Neal's development and I honestly can't wait for Anderson to get back because that's one more guy who has shown he can hit an open three and is aggressive on defense.  Plus he's 6'6" which means they don't have to go with that lineup of Parker, Hill Neal at the 1, 2, 3 spots.  That lineup is going to get them burned one of these days.

Let's be real though,  20-3 is 20-3.  It's 4 games up on the Lakers in the loss column and that's all I care about.  I love that margin of victory is a ten point average (as John Hollinger notes, the margin of victory is the highest predictor for future success). I love that they seemingly have a different guy stepping up every game.  I love that Tim Duncan is in cruise control right now (something tells me that changes in the coming weeks). But most importantly I love that if the playoffs started today the Spurs would have home court advantage throughout the playoffs and wouldn't see the Lakers until the Western Conference Finals.

Alright, so we're barely one fourth of the way through the regular season, but this Spurs team is for real.  Hopefully they continue to pad that win total the rest of this month because the schedule doesn't get any easier.  This team is deep at every position, especially once Misssssterrrr Anderson gets back (Matrix, anyone?) and back in to game shape.  I'm trying really hard to stay cautiously optimistic but as every game passes I'm getting more and more excited for where this team goes come playoff time.

*Just wanted to note that in a couple weeks I'll be moving to Sacramento in a couple of weeks.  I'm incredibly excited about the oppurtunities I'm about to walk in to, but don't for a second think I'm going to forget about Los Spurs.  I've got NBA League Pass ready to go and don't plan on missing many games.  You may also see some Kings and general NBA talk, but let's be real, could you possibly see me neglecting my Spurs? I didn't think so.

Two Quiet Cities, Two Quiet Superstars

Last month during one of the timeouts at the Bulls-Spurs game, they flashed a shot of Albert Pujols on the jumbo tron.  Most people didn't know who it was, he probably just looked like any other Hispanic guy at a Spurs game. And really that's probably how Phat Albert wanted it.  He's never been a look at me guy, which from a marketing sense is unfortunate, because if he wanted to be, Albert Pujols could be the biggest star in baseball thanks to his incredible talent and near flawless reputation (well there was this awesome SportsCenter commercial).  But that's not how he wants it and whether he knew it or not, Albert Pujols courtside at a Spurs game made perfect sense.

Pujols was in town for his former teammate Mike Koolbaugh's Memorial Golf Tournament (Coolbaugh died after being hit in the head by a line drive during a minor league game). He was watching another quiet superstar in Tim Duncan.  That night, Duncan didn't do anything flashy but finished 16 points, 18 boards and 5 assists.  Not much was said about it after the game on SportsCenter, even if it was the Spurs 9th win in a row.  Now I want you to remember I said this in the spring or summer when Albert Pujols is doing fantastic things on the baseball field, but the media is largely ignoring him because he doesn't play on the East Coast and because he's been so great for so long, it tends to get lost writers and ESPN talking heads (sound familiar, Spurs fans?").

When I intially started writing this Pujols had just missed out on his 3rd straight season for no other reason then Joey Votto is a better story this year and Pujols' numbers would have had to blow everyone else's out of the water for him to get that MVP. 

I lived in St. Louis for five years and really came to appreciate that city's love for baseball and their not so flashy star.  It reminds me of how this city fell in love with David Robinson and then Tim Duncan.  The quiet, awesome consistency that defines all of their careers.  Now as I finish writing this, I keep reading about how the Cardinals may not extend Pujols.  I don't buy it for a minute but if it is, I hope the Cardinals front office understands, like the Spurs have with Duncan every time his contract comes up, that a player and man like Pujols comes across once in a generation and when that happens you do whatever you can to keep him in the fold.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Randomly Busy Night In Basketball

Thanks to Groupon I bought some Bulls-Spurs tickets for Wednesday night a couple of weeks ago for relatively cheap. I bought them mainly because I hadn't had a chance to see the Spurs live yet and Derrick Rose is one of the 10 most exciting players in the league.  Little did I know that it'd be one of the busiest nights in the NBA so far this season.  Let's get to the day's events.

- Tony Parker and Eva Longoria are getting divorced.  I know, you probably don't care.  I know I don't.  I know you're also probably not surprised either. After all what are the odds that multi-millionaire, French basketball player in his 20's would cheat on his wife who doesn't live in the same city as him for 6 months out of the year because she's busy acting in Hollywood and hanging out with a notorious cheater (in this case A.C. Slater, who cheated on the Doritos Girl, Ali Landry)?  I'm not defending Tony Parker's actions here, especially if he was texting back and forth with Brent Barry's wife as is rumored.  He's a scum bag, but he's a French, so it's expected.  Point is I don't care and really didn't want much to do with it except I work at a TV station and was pretty much told I had to care about it.  Basically, with most athletes and celebs in general, I don't care what happens in their personal lives as long as they don't kill or rape anyone or commit some other sort of terrible crime.  I enjoy a good story as much as the next person and this one was certainly entertaining, but overall I don't really care.  So after washing the stench of Tony Parker's over active wiener and/or text happy thumbs of off me, I was looking forward to just being able to enjoy what I hoped would be a very entertaining game.  One thing I was interested in was to see if TP would get booed by any faction of Pro-Eva San Antonians.

- Did I mention Wednesday night's game was nationally televised on ESPN? It was... good timing Mr. and Mrs. Longoria.  So we got to our seats in time to hear the National Anthem sung by a group of Haitian boys. Good job by them, especially considering they were singing a National Anthem that isn't even their own.  By the way, Tony Parker got his normal very loud reaction.  And it really felt like he may have gotten a loud ovation then Manu and Duncan. I could be wrong though.

-The Spurs looked good for the first 5 minutes of the game, then terrible for the rest of the first half.  Derrick Rose is awesome.  I think I could set a pick for him and he'd get to the basket. He turned Duncan around several times on the switch on the pick and roll. Duncan may not be quick enough to guard point guards anymore, but I've never seen him get flat out turned around like he did.  Also, Rose has a cross over so ridiculous that he has officially ripped the "killer crossover" crown from Tim Hardaway (Note: This may be the first written Tim Hardaway reference since he gay bashed on live radio 4 years ago. The lesson? Don't gay bash, especially when you're on live radio).  The Bulls bench comes in in the 2nd quarter and stretches the lead to 18 before the Spurs make it a 10 point game at the half (47-37).  At this point the t-shirt Bulls fans, most of whom were wearing their Jordan and Pippen stuff were a 10 on the obnoxious scale. Glad to have them back after a 13 year hiatus.

- The Spurs scored 37 points in the first half then scored 37 points in the third quarter.  This Spurs team continues to be the most balanced Spurs team I have ever seen on offense.  Manu and Tony looked especially good in the third and Duncan snapped out of the mini funk he was in.  He was all over the place on the glass too, especially in the second half.  He also did an excellent of keeping Joakim Noah (the NBA's ugliest player and one of my least favorite) off the offensive glass, limiting any Chicago second chance oppurtunities.  San Antonio out scored Chicago 37-12 in the 3rd quarter and the only reason the Bulls stayed in the game was because Derrick Rose has now figured out how to make jump shots.  Rose finished with 33 points, but only 4 assists, so he still some work to do. The Spurs defense has looked so much better the last few games then it did even two weeks ago.  A very encouraging sign moving forward.

- My Player of the Game title goes to Tim Duncan. 16 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks.  With how good Manu, Parker and Richard Jefferson are playing, I wouldn't be surprised to see more lines like this when Timmy plays more then 30 minutes in a game.

- Couple of other notes, Tiago Splitter got a DNP-Coaches Decision, which I thought was curious because the Bulls are one team that likes to play a center and a power forward, so you would think he'd get a little bit of run.  Hopefully he does against Utah, who also uses multiple bigs as much as they can.

- Randomly, Albert Pujols was courtside at the game. Lived in St. Louis for five years so this was more exciting for me than for most. Albert Pujols is to St. Louis what Tim Duncan is to San Antonio.  I wasn't sure what he was doing in town. Maybe he was on his way to Houston to continue to look for that Game 5 home run he hit off of Brad Lidge back in '05.

- When my brother and I arrived at the AT&T Center we noticed Miami was pulverizing Phoenix behind 35 points from Chris Bosh. I like this Miami team and aside from the Spurs, am rooting for them the most this year.  I think Bosh's struggles stem from the fact that he has probably never even been the number 2 option, let alone the number 3 option on any team he has ever played for. I liken his circumstances to Richard Jefferson's last year, though I think he's much more talented and will adjust his game by the time Spring rolls around.

- My phone reception was in and mostly out through out the game, but I did manage to hop on twitter and find out that Greg Oden was having season ending microfracture knee surgery.  Just terrible news.  Everything I've read about Oden suggest he is a guy who wants very badly to be a great center in the league and feels like he's letting the Trailblazers down by not being able to play.  I'm pulling for him.  Some encouraging news for him is he hasn't any problems with his right knee since microfracture surgery before his rookie year, so it's possible the same will be the case with the left knee.  Also, young guys like Amar'e Stoudamire have bounced back from microfracture in the past with minimal problems to their knees.  I know this being very optomistic given Greg Oden's history, but Chris Webber missed a ton of games his first 4 years in the league and went on to obviously have a very successful career.  I'm hoping for the Amar'e/C-Webb scenario for Oden and not the Jonathan Bender scenario.  I'm also hoping that if Oden isn't back with the Blazers next year that he signs with the Heat, because he would be EXACTLY what they need next to Bosh if he can stay healthy.

- It was quite the day from start to finish.  Some of it I hated, but most of it I loved and really I'm just happy to have the NBA back in full swing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Spurs So Far

It's still really early, but I felt like a little over two weeks in to the season was a good time to give some initial thoughts on this year's Spurs.  The team just wrapped up a 95-91 win in Charlotte.  Considering this Bobcats team absolutely destroyed the Spurs in Charlotte last year, I'm actually quite encouraged by this win.  The Spurs are 3-0 on the road so far against middle of the road teams which is where you want to be this early in the season.  The offense really seems to be clicking already.  The Spurs are 4th in the league in scoring and more importantly second in assists. They have four players averaging 17 points a game or higher and two averaging 20 points or higher.  Richard Jefferson has been out of this world averaging 20 points a game and shooting over 60% from the field.  Even tonight when it looked like his shot was off he found other ways to stay involved, most notably the seven rebounds and four assists.  The Spurs couldn't have asked for a better start from him.

Unfortunately the defense, like my writing and statistical breakdowns, is still a work in progress.  The Spurs rank 20th in rebounds, though I would argue that number gets better the more minutes Tiago Splitter gets and the more comfortable he becomes with the pace of an NBA game.  What is more of a worry is the fact that the Spurs are allowing teams to shoot 48 percent against them and 42% from behind the 3-Point line.  Luckily the offense has been there so far, but hopefully they get to Spurs basketball on defense, which is closing out on 3-Point shooters, pushing everyone baseline in to the bigs.  I think the personnel is there to fix these problems, especially if Splitter can be an effective pick and roll defender once he gets more minutes. (Quick tangent on Splitter, I'm not sure which I'm hoping for first, for him to become a regular rotation guy who plays D and rebounds or for him to get those awful highlights out of his hair. I hope happen soon)

For me the bright spot has been how well the bench has played so far.  Last year the Spurs got pulverized by the Suns bench in the 2nd round of the playoffs (I just said the Spurs stole an idea from the Suns. My life is a lie).  Tonight against Charlotte, as well as the Clipper game last week, there were stretches where the Spurs had four or five bench guys on the floor at the same time and they held or extended leads.  This is incredibly encouraging especially considering how young the Spurs bench is.  George Hill needs to get his scoring going a bit more, but I don't think that's giant concern.  James Anderson and Gary Neal have looked great in spots.  Does anyone else see Michael Finley potential in James Anderson?  I'm not talking about Spurs Michael Finley, I'm talking Dallas Mavs borderline All-Star Michael Finley.  Athletic, a fearless shooter and he looks like he wants to be good on defense, he just hasn't figured out how to be yet. The tools seem to be there and I think he's in the right system to harness them.

In short, I think the Spurs are off to a great start.  The only team they've lost to is still undefeated and they're 3-0 on the road.  They have the Clippers and Sixers at home coming up, then travel to Oklahoma City next Sunday, which isn't as daunting as it may have looked before the season started because OKC has struggled a little bit early in the season. If they can just buckle down on defense the Spurs just may have something here.  No bold predictions yet, but let's just say I'm as optimistic about this team now as I was a few weeks ago.

League Notes:

-I hate to say it, but the Lakers look fantastic, even if it has been against a Charmin soft schedule.  Pau Gasol looks better then he ever has.  My only question with this team is can a team of 30 something year olds can make a deep playoff run 4 years in a row.  The core of this team has played in over 100 games (not counting international play) each of the last three seasons. Do they have enough gas to finish?

-Chris Paul wants you all to know he's the best point guard in the league.  It's not even close. Don't come at me with Rondo or Rose.  Chris Paul is back!

-I'm not worried about the Heat, they're 5-2 and are playing at about 70% of what they're capable of playing at.  They do need to figure out how to get Chris Bosh involved more and I suspect LeBron will do that once he gets more adjusted to his Point Forward role.

-NBA League Pass Broadband is awesome. That is all.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A French For Four More Years

Shortly after logging on to check Facebook and Twitter this morning, I encountered the news that Tony Parker had signed an extension with the Spurs.  If you've known me or followed me on twitter for any extended period of time, you know I've been calling for and thanks to ESPN's Trade Machine, had been scheming to get Tony Parker traded out of San Antonio. In 2003, when the Spurs had just won their second NBA title but Parker was less then stellar against the Nets and Jason Kidd was available. Kidd re-signed with the Nets and then, fortunately for the Spurs, required at least one knee surgery.  Parker turned into an all-star and for a few years a top 5 point guard in the NBA. Still, I wanted him out. He was a speedy point guard who was going to slow down at some point, so why not trade him now and get some value.  The Spurs didn't and then his contract was set to expire so again, why not get some value for him? The Spurs had George Hill has an heir apparent and their were rumblings Parker wanted to go to New York.

Now comes the news that Tony Parker signed an extension. At first I didn't know what to think.  He is apparently healthy and there is now some resolution to something that had the potential to be a gigantic distraction for the whole season (See: Carmelo Anthony).  Then I thought "Good God, what if he signed a 5 year, 70 million dollar extension?!" I thought my head might explode. Then I saw Andrew McNeil from 48 Minutes of Hell tweeted that Parker's French web site was reporting his deal was for 4 years and 50 million dollars. Then, for all my calls for to trade TP, I decided I was happy with the extension.  It's a very reasonable contract in rich basketball player terms, higher then Richard Jefferson's new contract and below Manu's extension from last spring.  More importantly though, the market for a point guard has dried up considerably in the last few years and if the Spurs had just let him walk next summer they wouldn't have even been in a position to replace him.

I don't love this contract and certainly don't love Tony Parker on the Spurs, but short of convincing a dumb GM to give back too much for the speedy point guard who is getting older and will eventually slow down, Tony Parker is more valuable to the Spurs then he is to the other teams in the league. He probably has two more years left in his prime and then hopefully he is able to adjust his game and become a veteran leader for a Spurs team in transition.  Just please TP, don't release any more French Rap albums.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Coach K and Phil: Chapter 2

At this rate, I'll finish this analysis in November of 2011. Chapters 2 of the The Gold Standard and The Last Season begin to show two things. The first is that Coach K's path to Beijing and Phil Jackson's road to the 2004 finals could not have been more different. The second thing it shows is that Coach K and Phil Jackson's teaching styles aren't as different as people tend to think.

Not just a student of the game, but also of history in general, Coach K made it a point to make sure the Redeem Team knew where USA Basketball had been before the failure of 2004.  Having been a member of the 1992 Dream Team coaching staff, as well as head coach of the 1990 World Championships team, K was the perfect man to analyze where USA basketball had gone since the Dream Team.  More importantly he had an excellent understanding of how the rest of the world had developed since Barcelona.  In essence, leading up to the 2008 games, Coach K did his best to do everything in the exact opposite way the 2004 team was brought together.  The majority of the team played together for 2006, 2007 and 2008 unlike to 2004 team that was slapped together a few months before the Athens games.  Only one member from the 2002 World Championship team that finished fifth (Shawn Marion) and only three players from 2003 FIBA Tournament of the Americas were on the 2004 Athens team (Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson and Allen Iverson).  That means there were players from the 2004 team on the 2008 team then there were players from 2002 on the 2004 team (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Carlos Boozer).

Fast forward to the first game of the 2008 games against China, and everything seemed to go right for Coach K and the Redeem Team.  Everyone was healthy, everyone was getting along.  Things seemed to be going so well that I almost wish I were comparing and contrasting what went wrong for the 2003-2004 Lakers and the 2004 Athens team.  Unfortunately, Larry Brown hasn't written that book yet.

Meanwhile, Chapter 2 of The Last Season takes us through Laker training camp and preseason.  You're not going to believe this, but this chapter didn't start with a story of Kobe being angry at Shaq.  That's because Kobe was a no show at the beginning of training camp.  Publicly, the Lakers were fine with Kobe missing the beginning of camp because he was "ill".  But privately, Phil was sure that blow up between him and Kobe was coming.  We'll come back to this.

What I wanted to focus on more was Phil Jackson and his attempts to control the on the court aspects of his job.  Phil spends quite a bit of time talking about who is on the Lakers this year and what's he's expecting from them.  Did you know that the '03-'04 Lakers had 8 new players?  Chemistry would certainly would be an issue Kobe and Shaq not withstanding.  I enjoyed Phil going over what he thought the new faces and role players brought to the table.  A lot has been said and written about Phil as someone who handles egos and personalities well, but is very laissez faire when it comes to what his team does on the court.  Chapter 2 gives me the impression this couldn't be farther from the truth.

Chapter 2 is where you also you see some outside variables play a part in the Lakers season.  Kobe's contract status was up in the air. Phil's contract status was up in the air.  Phil tried to empathize with Kobe on his contract situation but at the same admonished Kobe for making his public declaration to explore free agency during the preseason.

 "I what Kobe is thinking.  Yesterday he reiterated his intention to opt out of his contract and become and unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.  I would never oppose a player's decision to explore his true market value-if only the players in my era had been granted that similar freedom-but I do question his sense of timing."

Phil goes on to say that Kobe is being treated amazingly well despite the Eagle, CO charges looming over everyone and Kobe is doing nothing to show his appreciation to the organization for that treatment.  The Lakers ended up 3-5 in preseason, something Phil does not seem worried about.  What's more concerning for him is the fact that Shaq and Kobe have again taken to the media to trade shots at one another.  Often times Phil would take Shaq aside and let Mitch Kupchak handle Kobe.  The difference between the two of Phil says, is:

"Ask Shaq to do something and he'll say 'No, I don't want to do that' but after a little pouting he will do it. Ask Kobe and he'll say, 'okay' and then he will do whatever he wants"

 The regular season hadn't started and Phil was dealing with more challenges and drama in a few months then Coach K dealt with in 3 years.  To be continued...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Previewing The Spurs

As I write this, we are just a few hours from the kickoff to the start of the NBA season.  I don't think I've ever been this excited for a NBA season where the Spurs didn't win a title in the previous year.  The league changed so much this summer through free agency and trade and could be headed for another change this coming summer thanks to a possible lockout.  I feel like both these changes will help this year's Spurs team. 

I do the following thing every year: I talk myself into thinking this year's Spurs roster is better then the last.  And guess what, I think this year's team is much better then last year.  You know what you're going to get from the always Underrated Big 3, but also George Hill is only going to get better, DeJuan Blair has already shown in the preseason how much he's improved in the offseason.  Richard Jefferson looks to be way more aggressive, which can only help him improve from last season.  We haven't seen Tiago Splitter yet, but if he can pull down 7 or 8 boards and play some great pick and roll defense, then that's already an improvement from last season.  Also, Matt Bonner is only slated for 10 to 15 minutes a game. This also is an improvement from last season.

The thing I like most about this team is they didn't change their core all that much.  Blair replaces Antonio McDyess in the starting 5, Splitter comes in, so there's some much needed depth in the front court.  I know he's a rookie, but I'll take James Anderson as the team's resident 3 point shooter over Roger Mason, Jr. and Keith Bogans.  If Anderson is in anyways NBA ready, this is probably the deepest team the Spurs have had in a long time.  The only question is will anyone step up to become the big shot maker.  I feel like a healthy Manu can take on this role.

Here's something that I've been thinking about all summer long.  Most people in NBA circles feel a lockout will happen next summer.  Tim, Tony and Manu have admitted the championship window is closing on them.  That's why I think, especially Duncan is going to go all out this year.  Sure he will take an occasional back to back off, but I think Duncan is motivated to get a fifth ring.  I think he will be able to conserve some energy now that he doesn't have to always guard the other team's best big man and more then anything I think we're going to see a very determined Duncan this year.  Same for a contract year Tony Parker.  He's healthy, he wants a big deal, whether with San Antonio or elsewhere and I think he's going to prove he's 2007-2008 Tony Parker.

So where does all this optimism I have put the Spurs?  Realistically it still puts them a couple games back of the Lakers and probably a game or two better then Oklahoma City, Portland and Utah.  I think the Spurs will finish 1st in the Southwest and 2nd or 3rd in the West.  You really have to ask yourself which teams in the West got noticeably better from last season and the answer is none of them.  I think Denver will be worse with or without Melo, Phoenix definitely got worse by losing Amare and replacing him with Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick.  Dallas is old and the same team the Spurs beat up last year in the playoffs.  You can argue that OKC is a lot better, and a healthy Portland is better as well as Utah.  The only problem for those teams is they all play in the same division, so they can't all win 55 games, right? 

Once the playoffs start I think the Spurs get out of the first round playing whoever they play, then meet OKC in the 2nd round, play what will be the best series of the playoffs and beat them in 7 games (You can't convince me OKC is better then San Antonio, so don't even try).  Sadly the run probably ends there.  If the Lakers are healthy and they have home court the Spurs won't beat them (probably) and then I'll have to root for Miami or Boston in the Finals.  But I think this year's run will be a lot better then last year's and I'm looking forward to what could be if Kobe Bryant blows out his knee in December or January.  Go Spurs Go.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Phil, Coach K & Team Building: Chapter 1

Not too long ago I picked up Coach K's The Gold Standard: Building A World Class Team wanting to learn more about The 2008 Redeem Team.  I found the construction of the team and the dynamic of that team once it was built fascinating.  My girlfriend ( Read My Mind MVI if you need her) had been suggesting I read Phil Jackson's The Last Season: A Team In Search Of Its Soul.  Then I had a thought that it might be interesting to compare and contrast the construction of two of the most talented and most talked about teams of the decade.  One succeeded, the other imploded before our very eyes.

So here we are, sizing up two different, amazingly tough tasks by two amazing coaches.  Sure the situations were different, but both coaches say their books are about lessons learned from a team building exercise.  I'll be comparing the two books chapter by chapter. Sit back, enjoy and let me know what you think of this little exercise.

The Gold Standard, Time To Choose Your People: Unlike the '04 Lakers, Mike Kryzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo spent a year putting together the 2006 World Championship Team and almost another two years putting together the Redeem Team.  However, much like the '04 Lakers, Team USA was trying undo what the organization deemed a failure, a bronze in the '04 Olympics.  Coach K and Colangelo started completely from scratch.  LeBron, Wade, 'Melo and Carlos Boozer said they wanted back in according to Coach K, as soon as they stepped off the podium in Athens.  Past that, Coach K says they went so far back to the basics that they asked questions based off of the 5 W's (and the H).  Perhaps the most telling of those questions is "How Dow We Change The Culture?".  It began with interviewing each member individually, then not allowing the team to think about what happens if Team USA fails.

I like everything Coach K & Jerry Colangelo did.  They put together the perfect blend of youth and experience and most importantly a group of men who had one goal in mind.  I now am hopefully done with cliches for the rest of this entry. 

The Last Season, One Mountain At A Time: To be brief, Phil Jackson, Mitch Kupchak and Dr. Jerry Buss constructed the '03-'04 Lakers the exact opposite way the Redeem Team was.  Of course it's not that simple.  Phil Jackson is famously much more hands off then most other great coaches.  In Chapter 1, Jackson remarks that in the off-season he becomes even more hands off by disappearing to Montana for a couple of months.  The Lakers had just gotten bounced from playoffs (by the eventual champion Spurs I proudly add) and the team for the first time since Jackson got there, was evaluating what went wrong and how do they fix it.  They began by looking for a point guard to defend Tony Parker and an experienced big to guard Tim Duncan.  They went out and got Gary Payton and Karl Malone, two men past their primes and Payton at least, a questionable fit for the Triangle Offense.  Then Kobe's Eagle, CO incident happened, then Shaq reported to camp out of shape because he waited a while to get toe surgery because his injury happened on company time so the surgery could also happen on company time (are you listening Andrew Bynum???) and Shaq and Kobe were still Shaq and Kobe.

If I liked everything the Team USA group did, I hate everything the Lakers group did.  Payton was a terrible fit in the Triangle and couldn't stay in front of Tony Parker anymore.  Eagle, CO happened and there's nothing that could be done about that.  Phil's description of his relationship with Shaq is a little off.  Basically he jumped back and forth from being hard on the big fella and wearing kid gloves.  In the aftermath of Eagle, CO, Jackson said he called Kobe twice from Montana.  For a guy who didn't have a good relationship with Kobe to begin with, placing a couple of phone calls while the guys going through the worst time of his life isn't the best way to show him you're in his corner.  It just seesm like Jackson's philosophy works great when everything is going well, but this hand's off approach to this Lakers offseason just doesn't seem like it's the right way to address a team that first needed to retool and then was in need of some crisis management.

Stay tuned for Chapter 2

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I Feel Bad For Kevin Durant

It may sound crazy, but I really feel bad for Kevin Durant.  Yes, he is on top of the world right now.  He just dominated the FIBA World Championships in a way we've never seen and hasn't one single piece of bad press since he entered the league.  He even made positive headlines this summer when announced he was signing an extension with the Thunder via twitter as opposed to what LeBron and the other big name free agents did this summer.  There's really nothing to dislike about Kevin Durant.  And that's where he's going to run into a problem.

With the stench of "The Decision" still lingering, fans are looking for the anti-LeBron and the anti-Heat.  Enter Durant and the Thunder.  Small market team with homegrown players who have developed together.  This summer has bred a LeBron vs. Durant culture among NBA fans (even if LeBron and Durant aren't treating it that way). All this is fine except I have this fear that we as NBA fans, not to mention the media, have set Kevin Durant up to fail, or at the very least not live up to our ridiculous expectations of him.

I feel like even if Durant duplicates his numbers from last season and his team wins 50 games again, people will feel underwhelmed this coming season.  What if his touches decrease next season.  Russell Westbrook had his own coming out party at the Worlds.  Serge Ibaka and James Harden are only going to get better and will need the ball more to develop.  This amazingly young team still doesn't have a lot of size.  Should we expect them to beat the Lakers with Cole Aldrich as their only significant offseason addition (or a healthy Blazers or Spurs team with the amount of size they have)?

While Durant was lights out at the Worlds (a style of play he is perfect for), he had his ups and downs during the Lakers series.  We should also keep in mind that so far he's only been to the playoffs once and hasn't played a game 7, let alone win a series.

I love watching Durant play.  I love how humble he is and how he puts his team first.  But let's remember he's still 21, he still hasn't won a playoff series (LeBron had been to the Conference Finals by 21 and the Finals by 22) or an MVP (though he's the hand's down favorite at this point). He's a top 5 player in the league but he's still not better then LeBron and still hasn't accomplished what Kobe's accomplished.  So let's everyone just sit back and enjoy Durant's ride and not set our own expectations for him through the roof.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Riddle Me This!

I found myself bored looking around on ESPN.com and decided to check out the Spurs depth chart (really, it's what anyone would do on a random August night) and realized that this may be the deepest team the Spurs have had during the Duncan-Pop era.  Right now, per ESPN, the starting 5 isn't that different from last year. Tony Parker, Manu, Richard Jefferson, Greatest Power Forward Ever and Antonio McDyess.  Then you get to the second unit and it kind of reminds me of a 2nd unit the Suns used to dismantle San Antonio last spring.  The idea of George Hill, DeJuan Blair & Tiago Splitter all coming off the bench is particularly exciting.  Throw in James Anderson and you have two NBA ready rookies, a second year guy in Grizzly Blair who spent all summer working on his game and his tweets and George Hill who may be starting at point by mid season.

So riddle me this: Why can't the Spurs be the second best team in the West next year? They now have two seven footers patrolling the paint (something they haven't had since the last title). Manu, TP & George Hill are all dynamic scorers. Hill is a fearless defender and if you look at this story from the folks at 48 Minutes Of Hell, Greatest Power Forward of All Time, Manu and TP are historically great team defenders.

One last thing, there's certain a level of motivation at play here that the Spurs haven't had lately. One, Tony Parker is in a contract year so he wants to prove that he can perform at an All-Star caliber level. Greatest Power Forward of All Time may be looking at this season as his last shot to get a title since he's 34 and there might not be an NBA season next year.  This may be his last chance to catch Kobe and get back ahead of Shaq, his two chief rivals during his career, in the ring department.

Assuming everyone is healthy (I know, big assumption), what don't the Spurs have to finish 2nd in the West and challenge the Lakers in the playoffs? Great coaching? Check. Championship core? Check? Size? Check. Youth and athleticism? Check. Motivation? Check.  Point is after the Lakers, the West is a giant bag of question marks and there's no reason to think the Spurs can't be a top 3 team in the West next season.  And yeah, I know, I should be focusing on a lot of other things besides the Spurs championship chances next summer.  We'll be revisiting this again I'm sure.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

There's Nothing Like International Ball

    I love international basketball tournaments.  How many of you feel about the World Cup, that's how I feel about Olympic Basketball and the FIBA World Championships.  The 2010 World Championship kicks off in 9 days.  Coach K's team is already in Spain preparing for tune up games against Spain, Greece and Lithuania.  There has been a lot of talk about the lack of size with this team.  We'll just have to hope Tyson Chandler, Lamar Odom (Khlodom as I call him) and Kevin Love are big enough for Team USA.  This team is going to need to run, shoot extremely well and play rock solid defense.

    The best starting five for this team is Stephen Curry at the point, Chauncey at the 2, Andre Iguadola at the 3, Kevin Durant (who needs no nickname by the way.  I like calling him by his full name.  I do the same with my dog, Rose The Bulldog.  It just fits.) at the 4 and Tyson Chandler at the 5.  Is this team small? You bet, but there are like 2 or 3 teams where size is an issue.  Brazil has a three headed monster of Nene, Andy Varejao and Tiago Splitter, so you might need to plug Klodom or Kevin Love in to the starting 5 then.  Also, Spain's size is problematic but less so because of the absence of The Big Neckbeard, Pau Gasol and Argentina could cause problems inside as well.

   Second unit should look something like Khlodom, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon, Rondo or Derrick Rose and Kevin Love (Sorry Danny Granger and either Rondo or D-Rose, we'll see you in London...).  This way you always have at least a couple shooters on the court and athletic 3's like Durant, Iggy & Gay to crash the boards, defend and get out and run.  Expect Durant to play 30 minutes or so a game.  As he proved in college his size and shooting ability make him the perfect zone buster.

    Two most important things for Team USA over the next few weeks I think is being active on D and keeping at least a couple of shooters on the court.  Translation: At no point should Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose ever be on the court together.  Ever.

    I don't know if I expect Team USA to win, but I can't wait to see how it comes together.  Hopefully Kevin Durant decides to go in to Terminator mode and just tear through the competition.  One thing I know is this won't end as poorly as 2004 in Athens when Starbury and A.I. were starting in the back court together.  That sucked.  Oh wait, I forgot, that never happened.

Duncan's Decade

** This was originally written for The Hoops Forum at the end of 2009**
** Before you ask, no, my opinion on this argument has not changed even with Kobe getting ring #5**

    Over the next few months, several debates will start in every major sport (many already have) over what was the team of the decade, who the player of the decade was, etc.  For the last decade the two most dominant players in the NBA have been Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.  In terms of statistics, accolades and titles (Sorry KG), Duncan and Kobe have been head and shoulders above everyone else in the since the 1999-2000 season. Especially because of his recent individual and team success, many fans and members of the mainstream media have anointed Kobe as the player of the decade.  What those fans don’t realize is that in every aspect of the game, Tim Duncan has been the premiere player in the game since the Jordan era. 
    I’ve broken my argument down into three categories. Statistics, individual accolades and team success.  Stats are nice, certainly they’re important, but they should never be the determining factor of deciding who the better player is.  But since we’re here let’s look at the numbers:
Kobe Bryant: 28 ppg, 5.3 apg, 6.4 rpg, 25.26 per (1999-2000 season to 2008-2009 season)
Tim Duncan: 21.4 ppg, 3.5 apg, 11.7 rpg, 25.52 per (1999-2000 season to 2008-2009 season)
Pretty even, right?  Especially when you look at the player efficiency ratings.  I think on the surface you could even give the statistical edge to Kobe.  I think offensively Kobe has been a more dominant player, but Duncan has always been more capable of imposing his will on offense and defense. 

    This is where the argument really starts to turn in Duncan’s favor.  Individual accolades are still close, but Duncan has a clear edge here.  Take a look:
Kobe: 1 MVP, 1 Finals MVP, 7 All-NBA 1st Teams, 2 All-NBA 2nd Teams, 1 All-NBA 3rd Team, 7 All NBA Defensive 1st Team, 2 All NBA Defensive 2nd Teams, 10 All Star Selections, 4 NBA Titles
Duncan: 2 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs (3 including ’99), 8 All NBA 1st Teams, 2 All NBA 2nd Teams, 8 All NBA Defensive 1st Teams, 2 All NBA 2nd Teams, 10 All Star Selections, 3 NBA Titles (4 including ’99).

     Again, what part of those numbers tell you Kobe is better?  We should also keep in mind that Duncan averaged 19 points a game, 11.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game during the 2007 finals when he had at least 2 players draped all over him, paving the way for Tony Parker to drive the lane early and often to earn the 2007 Finals MVP.   So Duncan should have 3 finals MVPs this decade and 4 total. His defining moment probably came through during Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals.  In a close out game, Duncan had 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks.  Find a better game Kobe had a more important stage?  It’s also important to mention that Duncan was the best player on all of those championship teams.  Kobe was only the best on one of them.  In the 2001-02, 2002-03 seasons, when Tim Duncan was the only All-Star on his team, the Spurs finished with the second best record in the league one season and won the NBA title the other season.  The three seasons Kobe was the only All-Star on the Lakers, they got bounced from the play-offs in the first round twice and missed them the other year.  
    The last part of my argument is the strongest; Team success.  Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs have the highest winning percentage of any NBA team from 1999-2000 to 2008-2009 and have won 81 play-off games during that span.  Kobe’s Lakers have won 98 playoff games over that same span.  Over that same span, Duncan’s Spurs never missed the play-offs and won 53 games or more over that span.  Kobe’s Lakers won less then 50 games three times and less then 40 games once.  During that time, Kobe threw several of his teammates under the bus, most notably Andrew Bynum in the summer of 2007 when he was caught on tape in disbelief that Mitch Kupchack didn’t trade Bynum for Jason Kidd.  The Lakers should also have at least one more title when the Lakers imploded during the 2003-2004 season.  Again, Kobe was at the center of that controversy because he couldn’t stand Shaq or sharing the spotlight with him. 
    I don’t think it can be argued that Duncan throughout his career has made his teammates better.  He has had no problem letting the offense flow through Tony Parker. Could you ever see Kobe Bryant willfully letting the offense flow through someone else?  Could you ever see Tim Duncan holding an organization hostage and demanding this player be traded or that player be traded? No, Duncan is a leader through and through.  With the exception of complaining to officials (we all know what the stunned Tim Duncan face looks like), Duncan keeps his mouth shut and leads by example.  The difference between Duncan and Kobe is players want to play with Duncan because he’s a great leader and great teammate.  The seasons from 2004 to 2007 show Kobe is far from a leader.  I think it’s the leadership quality more then anything that separates Tim Duncan from Kobe Bryant.