Archives For August 2011

We all have our biases.

These biases are based off what we value. For some people, Magic Johnson will always be their favorite – and thus the best – Laker ever based off how he played the game. He was a pass first player that always looked to get his teammates involved in order to maximize the team’s chance at winning. He brought a flair to the action that was captivating and his ability to come up big in the big moments was legendary, but it was his style that continues to have fans on his side.

For others, Kobe is the guy they look to as the best player due to his iron will to win and his willingness to do whatever it takes to get his team to the top. It’s not always the most efficient approach, but his skill level is off the charts and his ability to captivate fans while pulling off the (seemingly) impossible inspires a strong devotion. The last second shots, the scoring explosions, the moxie – all of them make Kobe who he is and what make fans kneel at the altar of #24.

But our biases aren’t limited to choosing who we favor in a battle of all time greats. Sometimes, our biases conspire to see all the things that are wrong with current players on the roster in order to argue against why they could be effective the role they’re assigned.

No where is this more true than with the Lakers’ point guards. We’ve gone back and forth on this issue for (what seems like) years, but it’s now more clear than ever that the Lakers need an upgrade at the point if they’re going to contend.

But do they really? To be honest, I’m not so sure.

You see, what the Lakers need is better production from the point, not necessarily better players. For some, these two concepts are inescapably linked but I’d argue that’s not actually the case.

Certainly, last season the Lakers point guards let them down. They missed too many of the open shots they were given and didn’t make the needed plays when they were asked to create for themselves or their mates. Questionable decisions were more frequent than ones that helped the team and the Lakers suffered for it. The result of those failures is that we’re now in almost unanimous agreement that there’s no other answer than to replace those players that let us down.

I’d contend, though, that what the Lakers actually need are for the point guards they have to play to their potential. I know I’ve been seen as a Derek Fisher apologist, but I don’t think last year’s performance is all he can provide to the team. Surely his age and limited (which is being kind) athleticism hurt his ability to improve as much as a younger player with fresher legs, but production is not limited to how fast you can run or how high you can jump. Fisher can make better decisions on when to drive (which should be almost never), when to look for his own shot, and when (and to who) he should be passing to on any given play. He can be more efficient a player by not forcing the action as much; by not taking the offense upon his shoulders more than he should.

Steve Blake can also be a better player than he was last year. Finding his way in the triangle proved to be more difficult than anyone anticipated and being asked to run a more traditional offense should help him be more productive. He should have the opportunity to run more P&R’s in order to create off the dribble while still getting the spot up jumpers that he’s still very capable of knocking down. He won’t be asked to be a slasher nearly as much and limiting his shots off cuts, dives, and hand-offs in and around the paint going into the teeth of the defense should help him be more efficient.

In the end, none of this may end up working out and we’ll all be clamoring for a better player at the point come game 10 of next year (whenever there is a game 10). But I think it’s also very important to understand that the Lakers are still built around a ball dominant shooting guard and a trio of versatile big men. The point guards on this team need to walk the fine line of being confident while deferential to the better players on the roster and opportunistic when their chances do arise. That’s a difficult role to play while still providing the production that the team needs. That said, the current group of players have the skill sets to do just that. And while they actually have to get on the floor and provide that production, we all need to do a better job of seeing past our biases to allow them to try.

At least until the way this roster is constructed changes.

J.M. Poulard is a friend of the site and contributor to fellow TrueHoop Network site, Warrior’s World. Over the summer he’s been dishing out tremendous historical pieces and today follows up on his first historical piece for FB&G with another look back. You can reach him by email here and find him on Twitter @ShyneIV.

College basketball has always been able to sell itself, and will continue to do so in the future. The single elimination tournaments, the coaches, the pride of the alumni and obviously the players make the NCAA wildly attractive. Nonetheless, there is nothing quite like seeing future professional stars perform during March Madness.

Indeed, if evidence is needed to validate this point, think back to March 2003, when a sensational freshman (this would be the spot where Dick Vitale screams DIAPER DANDY BABY!) by the name of Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national title. Prior to Melo’s hijacking of the tournament, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played in arguably the most famous college basketball game ever, when Michigan State defeated Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA title game.

Part of what made the game so compelling was the talent level of both teams, but more so than anything; it came down to the stars. Johnson and Bird met in the first of many meetings that would come to define their professional careers.

The beauty of both stars was their ability to literally do everything on the basketball court: scoring, passing, rebounding and defense. Hence, both players going head-to-head meant that the world would get the opportunity to watch the two best players in the game compete against the other with the opportunity to determine who was truly the better player. Also, whether we want to admit it or not, the racial component also made the match up that much more intriguing.

Thus, when both players joined the NBA, they invigorated the league by making it appealing for casual fans, which took the National Basketball Association to new heights.

Prior to Magic and Bird though, there were two stars that the NBA could have capitalized on immensely but failed to do so due to their inability to market the league as a whole.

Two decades prior to Michigan State and Indiana State facing off for the NCAA title, college basketball as well as the NBA had the almost the same exact opportunity to elevate both the college and pro game to a new level. The Final Four would feature these universities: California, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

Cincinnati faced off against California while West Virginia played versus Louisville. Think about this: the 1959 championship game could have pitted Jerry West and his West Virginia Mountaineers against Oscar Robertson and his Cincinnati Bearcats.

Make no mistake about it, Robertson and West were the best players in college basketball. Fans and experts all had an opinion on which one of these forwards (yes, both players played forward in college) was the best in the game.

Oscar Robertson was an astounding scorer, terrific rebounder and great set up man. He was also a good defender, although his focus on that side of the ball wavered a bit during games. During the 1958-59 collegiate season, The Big O averaged 32.5 points, 16.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game on 50.9 percent field goal shooting.

Jerry West on the other hand was a superb scorer, impressive rebounder and decent set up man. Also, he was a far superior defender than Robertson given his willingness to consistently put in effort on the defensive end. Steals were not tracked at the time, but West had a knack for regularly coming away with the ball at the expense of his opponents. During the 1958-90 campaign, the Logo averaged 26.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 51.8 percent field goal shooting.

Jerry West and Oscar Robertson were both fantastic players that were both equally intelligent on the basketball court. One would assume that Oscar’s ability to affect multiple facets of the game would have him ranked as the better player (he was after all selected number one overall in the 1960 NBA draft while West was selected second), but such is not exactly the case. Roland Lazenby obtained this quote from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his book Jerry West:

Oscar always got the credit but Jerry got a lot of credit too and deserved it. I wouldn’t say that Oscar was absolutely the better player. They were like neck and neck, and they neutralized each other.

Also, Sports Illustrated wrote in 1972:

There has been a groundswell for West the last few seasons, so that now he is often accepted as the equal, or superior, of Oscar Robertson as the finest guard of all time.

And finally, Bill Simmons ranked Oscar Robertson ninth in his Hall of Fame Pyramid while Jerry West was listed as eighth (basically meaning that Oscar is the ninth best player of all time while West occupies the number eight spot) and he added this passage:

[…] if your life depended on it and you could only pick one franchise player from 1960 to 1974, but you had to win at least three titles during that span how could you not pick West? Even at his peak, teammates lived in fear of letting Oscar down. They walked on eggshells with him. They struggled to connect with him the same way a group of musicians would struggle to connect with someone who resides on a higher plane and blames them for being inferior. On the flipside, we have copious amounts of evidence to suggest West elevated his teams—he didn’t just make them better, they wanted to win for him, and not just that, he connected with them the right way. Jerry West had a better handle on The Secret than Oscar Robertson, that’s why West was better. By a hair, but still.

Needless to say, these guys were franchise players in the pros, but prior to joining the big leagues, these athletes were the kind that transformed basketball programs.

California eliminated Cincinnati in the 1959 national semifinal, which prevented Robertson from playing against West and his West Virginia teammates in the championship game. The prospect of their respective teams meeting for the national title might have changed the landscape of the NBA in the 1960s, but the truth is we will never know.

What we do know however is that West needed Oscar in order to become one of the greatest players ever. Indeed, Jerry West looked at Oscar Robertson and saw what he thought was the best player in the game. And knowing what that looked like, the Logo wanted to surpass him. Hence, every college game, every practice and every summer workout by 1958 became about the game within the game: winning at all costs, but also showing the world he could compete with Robertson.

The Bearcats’ inability to reach the title game disappointed West very much, given the fact that it robbed him of the chance to see how he measured up against The Big O. But then again, lost opportunities can occasionally lead to new challenges.

And in the case of West, Cincinnati’s inability to make it to the championship game meant that the West Virginia star would have to raise his game the following season to be considered as good or better than Robertson since he did not get a shot at the star Bearcat.

If there is one thing that all NBA legends seem to have in common, it is their motivation to be the best by taking down those they believe are at the mountaintop. And believe it or not, the Logo’s fire to surpass Robertson burned even when he joined the Lakers.

Considering the career that Jerry West had, one would have to say that the time spent thinking about The Big O was time well spent. Wouldn’t you agree?

-J.M. Poulard

There’s a reason his nickname was Big Game James. In one of the biggest games of his career and the contest the Lakers needed to win the NBA’s first back to back championships since the Celtics dynasty, Worthy was a monster.

From Andy Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: It goes without saying Tina Thompson is a women’s basketball icon. The WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, she has been a member of the league since the 1997 inaugural season. But she’s also a Los Angeles basketball icon. The Culver City resident was slated to attend Palisades High School, but the desire to play elite basketball prompted a transfer to the famed Morningside High School in Inglewood. (“When I tell you they’re worlds apart,” says Thompson of the schools and the demographics, “they’re worlds apart.”) She enjoyed a storied career — right on the heels of fellow legend Lisa Leslie — after which she graduated as the 1993 California AAA Player of the Year, with over 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds in her pocket. At USC, teamed with Leslie for one campaign, her four seasons concluded with her as the fourth-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder in Pac-10 history.

From Dave McMenamin, ESPNLA: Lakers guard Trey Johnson is heading to Italy to play basketball next season. Johnson, a late-season call-up by the Lakers from the D-League last year, signed a one-year deal with Teramo Basket of the Italian League on Wednesday. Johnson’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told that his client’s contract does not include an opt-out clause to return to the NBA should the lockout be resolved in time for the league to hold all or part of the 2011-12 season. Johnson averaged 25.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 39 games with the Bakersfield Jam before the Lakers signed him for the end of the regular season through the playoffs to provide backup point guard depth to the roster while Steve Blake was sidelined with the chicken pox.

From Jonathan Abrams, Grantland: There is only one outcome that really matters when sports and work stoppages collide. With apologies to tales about decertifications and labor lawsuits, play-by-play simply isn’t as invigorating in the court room as it is on the court. Pundits will pretend to care about lawsuits and sports talk hosts will call lawyers to kill time, but all anyone really cares about is when the dispute will end and play will resume. Tuesday’s courtroom activities included an unfair labor practice charge and a federal lawsuit against the players’ union, which the league alleges is not negotiating in good faith. (See? Even with all the drama, it’s just inherently uninteresting …) Both actions signal the end of bargaining. At this point a fingers-crossed, best-case scenario is the NBA and the union reaching a resolution in time to preserve a handful of regular-season games.

From Ben R, Silver Screen and Roll: For the past decade, Kobe Bryant has borne the weight of the hopes and expectations of the Lakers, providing the most definitive bridge between the two most recent Laker eras of championship excellence. Time and time again, he has answered those calls with fervid and dominant play that has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a basketball court. It is for this reason that last season was jarring to many Laker fans, as they were treated to a painful display of Kobe’s mortality, or at very least, a growing image of how the career of an all-time great enters its twilight stages. Naturally, comments to the effect that Kobe is finished at the moment are grossly exaggerated, as his competitive spirit, diverse skillset, and expansive basketball mind will keep him among the league’s best performers for the next few years. Nevertheless, it is a given that those same years under Mike Brown, in which Kobe will have to adapt to a new system and his declining physical skills, will be a transition period that will determine the nature of the team as it moves forward.

From Mark J. Spears & Adrian Wojnarowski: Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is engaged in far more substantive contract talks with teams in China than he is Turkish team Besiktas, league sources told Yahoo! Sports. Besiktas coach Ergin Ataman tweeted Sunday that the team made an official offer to Bryant last week and plans to meet with Bryant’s agent in Los Angeles this week. However, a source close to Bryant said he hasn’t had conversations with the Turkish team in two weeks, and labeled Bryant’s chances of playing with Besiktas at “zero percent.” Bryant, sources said, is still listening to offers to play overseas during the NBA’s lockout, and considers China a more likely option. He has exchanged proposals with Chinese teams, and one source said it’s unlikely Bryant would accept any deal that pays him less than $1.5 million per month. Bryant would be free to rejoin the Lakers as soon as the lockout ends.

From Kelly Dwyer, Ball Don’t Lie: Nearly 20 years after learning that he had tested HIV-positive, and 20 years after his initial retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson has a major regret. He wishes he hadn’t retired from the Lakers directly after learning of his diagnosis. And, knowing what we know now about the virus, he’s probably right. Magic could have kept playing. Two things are important to remember, 20 years later. First, to the uninitiated, testing positive for HIV back in 1991 seemed like a sure death sentence. I recall sports-talk radio hosts, not shock jocks, hoping Magic would survive long enough to see his NBA friends play in the 1992 Olympics some 10 months later. Even though a goodly chunk of the public knew that, with proper attention, Magic wasn’t putting teammates or opponents at risk by playing NBA hoops with HIV, retirement seemed like the only possible step after a diagnosis like this.

From David Murphy, Searching for Slava: It’s easy to point out the millions of dollars paid to NBA ballers and dehumanize them as a result, making the argument that they’re getting paid plenty and what about the average Joe?  I don’t find it convincing, it’s too easy.  Money and respect are married, everyone’s getting divorced. How many ways can one human being look at another and say, “fuck you.”?  As many ways as there’s hours and minutes in the day. There are unexpected friendships and support. There is disappointment. And sometimes, a time to move on. Everybody knows that the war is over, everybody knows that the good guys lost. Not necessarily. The other side wants you to believe that you have no recourse, that they own you and can discard you. Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: Every time talk centered on the current Lakers or the ongoing NBA lockout, Magic Johnson simply flashed his signature smile. It turned out to be an effective defense mechanism. See, Johnson may have sold his 4.5% ownership stake in the Lakers to billionaire season-ticket holder Patrick Soon-Shiong last October, but he kept his title as vice president. So that means he isn’t immune from the NBA’s wrath of issuing petty fines for team officials discussing players or personnel during the league lockout. The issue angered plenty of fans Saturday at Loyola Marymount University in a one-on-one conversation with Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who warned the crowd he couldn’t ask specific questions about the current Lakers thanks to NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Hard Cap: Who Really Gets Hurt?

Zephid —  August 3, 2011

On a day when the NBA has fired the first volley of legal action against the Players Union, there’s a lot of talk about who is to blame and who is holding up negotiations. One of the biggest issues at hand is the Hard Cap.

Many of us are probably fairly knowledgeable of what a hard cap entails, but a little refresher seems in order. In the previous CBA (the one that just expired), the NBA had a “soft cap,” where teams could sign whoever they wanted up to a certain limit (a little over $58M last season). However, once teams reached that limit, they could only sign players in excess of the limit using various exceptions, including the Mid-Level Exception (once a year, each team can sign a player at the average salary of the league), the Bi-Annual Exception (once every two years, each team can sign a player to a nominal amount of money (around $1-2M per year, for max 2 years), Traded Player Exceptions (when they make a trade in which they take on additional salary), and various “Larry Bird” Exceptions (whereby teams are allowed to re-sign their own players to larger contracts that put them over the cap). To prevent teams in bigger markets from continually accruing salary and simply outspending other teams, the CBA included the luxury tax, which forced teams to pay an extra dollar for every dollar they were over the luxury tax limit (somewhere around $70M last season). This served to limit a number of teams from overspending, the San Antonio Spurs being a prime example of a team that was very leery of exceeding the luxury tax limit for many seasons.

However, if teams could pay the extra money, they could just keep spending and spending away. Teams like our Lakers and Dallas paid out over $90M each this past season, 3 times more than the Kings and Nuggets have on their current payrolls for this season. Thus, a lot of small market teams (and fans of those teams), have started to call for a hard cap. A hard cap would make the salary cap limit absolute: there would be no exceeding the salary cap, regardless of the circumstances. The NFL currently has a hard cap system, and many attribute the parity of that league to the hard cap.

Tim Donahue of Eight Points, Nine Seconds, a Pacers blog, recently wrote an article claiming small markets need a hard cap. Donahue makes the case that a hard cap rewards disciplined spending and good management, something that many small markets have (such as Portland and Oklahoma City). Since large market teams can’t simply outspend the small market teams, the performance of the team would depend entirely on whether the team’s management could put together a cost-effective group of players that fit as a team.

That sort of argument seems to be the norm. Royce Young, however, a blogger for the Daily Thunder as well as CBSSports, makes a strong case that a hard cap could make keeping stars in small markets very difficult. One of the most useful parts of the past CBA were the various forms of Larry Bird Exceptions, allowing teams to keep their own players, even if doing so meant they would skyrocket past the cap. While this didn’t prevent Lebron James from bolting Cleveland, it did help Dallas keep Dirk Nowitski (and then win a championship at our expense… #anti-coping). However, if a hard cap is instated, a team like the Thunder may have a lot of trouble holding onto their good young players, like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. If all of those players want extensions, the Thunder will be extremely strapped for cash under a hard cap, considering Westbrook will almost certainly be a max level salary player and Ibaka will also command a high salary as a quality big man. Thus, even if teams draft smartly and make good decisions, it may become impossible for teams to hold on to their star players.

So does a hard cap hurt small market teams or large market teams? It certainly hurts dumb teams more than it does smart teams; any team willing to give Rashard Lewis $120M or similarly for Gilbert Arenas will get severely punished by their own cap inflexibility. Most would say it prevents large market teams from outspending small market teams, and for the most part, I agree. The Lakers would certainly have to give up one of Bynum, Gasol, or Odom to be under the salary cap, and it would have to be for almost nothing in return. A hard cap would definitely level the playing field in terms of spending power not dictating team strength.

However, a hard cap would produce a new imbalance in the NBA landscape, being that some teams are in states with low or no state income tax. California, for instance, had a state income tax of 11% for people making over $1M. Compare that to Florida and Texas, which have no state income tax, and it becomes clear that tax policies have a strong effect on where NBA players want to sign. A player could sign in Orlando for $9M and make the same amount as if he signed in LA for $10M.

As for whether a hard cap hurts the players or the owners, it definitely saves the owner’s from feeling forced to overspend on players. But as Henry Abbott points out in this very insightful post on TrueHoop (rare, I know), the NBA already has a de facto hard cap in the form of BRI sharing. In the previous CBA, the players received 57% of BRI, and that’s it. If 57% wasn’t enough to cover all player salaries, the players would simply receive less money (taken out ahead of time in the form of escrow). So while a hard cap may limit the value of some contracts, the CBA still dictates how much of BRI the players will receive, and in turn how much they are paid.

But you know who the real loser is in all of this hard cap business?: The NBA Trade Machine aficionados. A hard cap would make trade conditions extremely stringent, salaries having to match almost dollar for dollar, given that teams won’t be able to exceed the cap. And I don’t buy any of this “flex cap” crap the owners are pushing, because once you reach the flex cap limit, it becomes hard cap, plain and simple. Gone will be my days of somehow finagling Andre Iguodala onto the Lakers roster (and with it, my hopes and dreams!). In this respect, I think a hard cap hurts the NBA, because trade scenarios and MLE signings are some of our favorite topics of discussion (no matter how speculative they become). Yet the hard cap will almost certainly level the playing field for small market teams. Thunder fans just shouldn’t come complaining when they have to give up Serge Ibaka for nothing.