Archives For October 2011

(h/t Ball Is Life)

On Sunday night, the Drew League hosted the Goodman League in a rematch between the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. based pro-am leagues. After losing by a point in D.C., the Drew league were able to even the summer series against the Goodman league with a 151-144 win featuring over a dozen NBA guys.

*The Goodman league was led by John Wall (55 points) and Kevin Durant (50 points) who both put on a scoring clinic. Wall’s on-ball speed might have been one of the more impressive things I saw during the game as he was able to make the Suns ’06 “7-seconds or less” offense seem like a lifetime by comparison. Wall got in the paint at will using his ability to change pace and a variety of crossovers, and when he got in the paint, he put on a show finishing off a few dunks that got the attention of the crowd.

*Durant, who spent the whole summer burning down gyms and arenas, scored 50 with a barrage of three-pointers, fade away jumpers, turn-around fade aways and dunks. A few guys took a shot at guarding him, but Durant was able to go to work in almost every isolation situation and find a way to get a bucket.

*It was nice to see Rudy Gay back on the floor. Gay suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last year and Sunday’s game was one of the first times he’s been able to get back on the floor and play. He wasn’t the scorer that we’re used to seeing, but he had a few nice moves off the dribble and threw down a couple of mean dunks.

*On the Drew side, James Harden had the most impressive night in terms of the box score. He poured in 48 points, taking on all defenders. No, seriously. James Harden took on everyone as he was shooting the ball almost every time he touched it, leading to an exchange with a fan who pleaded for him to pass. Nonetheless, Harden was incredibly difficult for any of the Goodman league guys to handle individually. His strength and athleticism definitely set him apart from almost everyone else on the floor.  His beard was a bit tough to handle, too.

*Early in the game, Nick Young was a bit frustrating to watch as he tried to run the show at the point, but he had a few nice dunks and played very well down the stretch. His jumper was falling when the game’s intensity started to pick up. The game was tight with just a few minutes left, and Young helped the Drew League pull away from the Goodman league with a couple of contested jumpers from around the pinch post.

*Finally, the Lakers own Matt Barnes may have been the single biggest reason the Drew League was able to pull away from the Goodman League. Barnes was assigned to guard Durant down the stretch, and only gave up five points to Durant during the last 4-plus minutes. After Durant nailed a three in Barnes grill, Barnes ripped a Durant crossover which led to a fast break bucket. A few possessions later, Barnes picked up a loose ball that would have easily led to a Goodman dunk on the other end and was able to lay it end extending the Drew lead to two possessions. I don’t have a copy of the official box score, but I believe Barnes finished 2nd in scoring for the Drew League with 20.

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Basketball as we know it today is heavily influenced by the contributions and memories of whom I like to call The Three Wise Men: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. And in truth, how could it not? Between their combined 28 All-NBA 1st team selections, 20 NBA Finals appearances, 14 championship rings, 11 Finals MVP trophies, 11 MVP awards and countless memorable playoff moments, it goes without saying that they are the guardians of the modern basketball game.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird not only saved professional basketball during the 1980s, but they also revived it and took it to new heights. Fans once again wanted to root for teams and players and the Lakers and Celtics rivalry was not only renewed, but now offered actual drama given the fact that Los Angeles was victorious on a few occasions against Boston.

Michael Jordan obtained an unmatched iconic status by dominating his era and conquering every challenger to his throne. Every few years it seemed as though some new player would emerge with similar strengths to come take away what he had worked for, but Jordan never relented. He owned the 1990s and made sure we all knew it from the moment the final game of his championship seasons had concluded as he held his fingers up to remind of us how many titles he had won.

Jordan’s legacy is unquestionable, but it also benefitted from the advances in technology. MJ’s career came to a close a few years prior to the age of the internet where fans from across the globe were able to get all of the information they needed simply by logging onto a computer. With Jordan retired, the generation that watched him play romanticized his career over the internet and made sure that it would never be forgotten.

And thus, every time a great player today performs during the postseason when the pressure is at its highest, his performance will be measured against that of the Three Wise Men to determine whether it was truly historic and worthy of entering the pantheon of legends (example: during the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals, LeBron’s play was compared to that of Magic and MJ).

Jordan, Johnson and Bird have certainly deserved the recognition and accolades that have been bestowed upon them, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been just as successful if not more than most of the aforementioned players and yet routinely gets lost in the shuffle when talks of all time greats heat up.

The former UCLA Bruin has made 10 NBA Finals appearances, has 10 All-NBA 1st team selections to his name, six championship rings, six MVP awards and two NBA Finals MVP trophies. Clearly, he is more than qualified to enter any conversation centering on the prospects of which player is the most dominant the league has ever seen.

And yet, Abdul-Jabbar is often forgotten. During the 2011 playoffs, Kareem bristled at the idea that the Lakers had not honored him with a statue for his contributions to the purple and gold. Some saw it as him whining over the attention and respect that Jerry West and Magic Johnson still command today. But in reality, the legend had a point.

Abdul-Jabbar never cared much for playing the media game. Most stars today understand that it is a must; selling your brand to the public equates to exposure and thus players are easier to identify and relate to.

Kareem on the other hand was a different breed during most of his playing days. He had been a prodigy as high school center and consequently was already a celebrity at the time. Indeed, back when he was a teenager, he went to Rucker Park to watch Wilt Chamberlain (who was then in his third year in the NBA) take on some of the best playground players of the era. The teenager went by the name of Lew Alcindor and introduced himself to The Big Dipper and lo and behold, Wilt already knew whom he was.

If one of the NBA’s best players was already aware of the exploits of this high school player, everybody else in the country must have had heard about him as well. Consequently, Alcindor lived most of his teenage years and adult life as a celebrity. The constant attention and expectations came very rapidly and the young man grew tired of it rather quickly, especially considering the fact that media members rarely approached him with questions worthy of his intellect; or so he thought.

The star in the making was reading about Black Muslims, Islam, jazz, baseball and happened to love playing basketball. But given the fact that he was rarely asked questions about things he deemed important, he shut himself off from the media.

Even those who were fortunate to get a few words out of the giant, rarely had much to write about because Abdul-Jabbar would purposely give them quotes that could not be used in print (for instance he once referred to slavery and used several expletives to get his point across in a postgame interview). Consequently, Kareem became the star that could never satisfy the world: if he played well, he was supposed to because he was bigger than everybody else and when he played poorly, the press made sure to single him out.

In his autobiography Giant Steps, Abdul-Jabbar theorizes that he was robbed of the 1971 NBA All-Star Game MVP as well as the 1980 NBA Finals MVP precisely for these reasons. The media liked to sell stories and his just did not appeal to many because he refused to help them write his.

If we fast forward to today, we can only wonder if the same fate awaits Kobe Bean Bryant. His legacy as perhaps the greatest Laker ever is set in stone. He has the accolades, the rings, the pressure performances and the respect of peers. It would be tough to find a player that has delivered more often than Bryant in the postseason over the course of the last decade.

These are all undeniable facts today, but will his story be told to future generations as a landmark in NBA history or merely in passing? Between sports blogs, Twitter, Facebook and various other social media tools, it’s quite possible that Kobe will have a legacy that few will ever be able to match. As observers of this era, one would think that much like we protected and defended Jordan to younger basketball fans, the same would be done with Bryant.

However, there is still some trepidation on whether the Colorado case as well as the break-up with Shaquille O’Neal will always rub people the wrong way. In addition, his short guarded answers during the playoffs in recent years may have cost him some valuable media points.

In my estimation, Michael Jordan is a better player than Kobe Bryant; but that opinion stems from watching both players excel on the hardwood for numerous seasons. Unfortunately, some may share my opinion, but for all the wrong reasons.

Far too often, it seems as though athletes are obligated to be nearly perfect in order to reach the status of icon. Jordan, Magic and Bird figured out ways to sell their brand at a time where they still maintained some sort of privacy. Abdul-Jabbar on the other hand put himself in a situation where few wanted to sell his brand for him and it certainly seems as though it cost him in terms of how revered he is as opposed to other greats.

Kobe Bryant falls somewhere in between the trio and Kareem. Whether it’s the multiple game-winning shots, the 81-point game, the eight points in overtime in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals or helping the Lakers win Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant’s career is an incredible story to tell. Let’s just hope it gets told just as it happened…

In grand fashion.

#NBARank: Lamar Odom

J.M. Poulard —  October 6, 2011

With #NBARank now in the midst of announcing the top 50 players in the NBA, Laker fans have probably noticed that some of their favorite players have yet to show up on the board. It stands to reason that the purple and gold will be very well represented in the top 50 given the amount of talented athletes on the roster.  And true enough, Lamar Odom was announced today as the 44th best player in the NBA according to #NBARank.

Some might feel that the left-handed power forward should be rated higher whereas others might argue that he should have been rated lower, but his rating seems to be just about perfect.

Odom averaged 14.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on 53 percent field goal shooting last season predominantly coming off the bench (started 35 games). The numbers mind you, do not capture the scope of his contributions for the Lakers.

At 6’10, L.O. has the rare ability to rebound in traffic and take off with the ball to lead the fast break and feed a teammate for a score or simply take it all the way for a coast-to-coast finish. In addition, much like a young Rasheed Wallace, the former Rhode Island player can play just about every frontcourt position depending on match ups and create havoc for the opposition given his capability to score from just about every spot on the floor.

Lamar can spot up from beyond the arc to drill shots (he shot 38.2 percent from downtown last season but is a 32.1 percent career 3-point shooter), score on the block, drive passed most big men given his superior quickness and also convert midrange jump shots.

Consequently, Odom gives the Lakers flexibility that most teams can only dream of: they can play ultra-big with Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum or if they want to outrun their opponents, they can trot out a smaller and quicker line up with Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol; or simply even have Artest play power forward and Odom play center with the three-guard look.

The Lakers sixth man offers versatility on the court reminiscent of Hall of Fame player Scottie Pippen.

Granted, he is not the scorer or playmaker that Pippen was nor is he in the same class as the former Bulls star on defense; however Odom’s size and quickness allow for him to be able to play different types of players and give them fits. On a typical night, the artist formally known as Ron Artest would draw the job of guarding the best perimeter player on the opposing team, however should he get into foul trouble, Odom has the tools to be able to guard the likes of Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Danny Granger to name a few. In the event that his services are not required out on the perimeter, he will instead focus his efforts on players such as Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki when playing alongside Gasol.

Needless to say, Odom is a very skilled player that gives the Lakers a lot of variety in the amount of looks they can throw at teams. But one of his biggest contributions on the team may very well be his acceptance of his role. Indeed, his basketball gifts could easily have made him a greedy player seeking the adulation of the public; and thus he could have been a player that chases shots. Instead, he is more than content with getting his limited scoring opportunities, doing the dirty work on the boards and occasionally creating easy looks at the basket for the likes of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

In truth, Lamar Odom may be one of the most underappreciated players in the NBA today when we look at what he brings to the table across the board. He was an integral part to the Lakers back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 thanks in large part to his production as well as his durability and yet he was a much better player during the 2010-11 regular season after his stint with the U.S. team during the World Championships last summer.

Being ranked the 44th best player in the league should come as no surprise for those who follow the Lakers but it is nonetheless a sign that others have noticed that Lamar Odom is one of the best rotation players in the league.

As you’ve likely heard by now, yesterday’s meetings between players and owners did not yield even a tentative agreement. Both sides described the talks as productive but not impactful enough to provide the needed breakthrough. “Today was not the day to get this done. We were not able to get close enough to close the gap”, our own Derek Fisher relayed to the masses.

The pre-season is gone and if a deal between the owners and players isn’t reached by Monday the first two weeks of the regular season will fall with them. This is where we are.

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Well into the evening (much to the chagrin of my wife) I sat on my couch and watched – on continuous loop – the press conference that Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver had after the meetings were over. I watched my television like conspiracy theorists watch the Zapruder film, looking for tells as if I were a professional gambler waiting to catch these guys in a lie. And, to be fair, I found little to get upset about.

They relayed their positions like the media masters they are, talking about BRI, percentage points, hard caps, salary roll backs, and all the concessions the owners have made over the last several days in the hopes of finding the common ground that would lead to a deal. They spoke of disappointment that the meetings were “cut short” and how they really felt they were onto something before it was clear they weren’t. I found myself nodding in agreement at certain points and shaking my head at the spin being spoken at other times but mostly I just sat there dissecting every word.

And as I listened over and over again, I realized that I’m a bit too invested in this. The saying goes that no one likes to see the sausage made but I – like many others – are getting to the slaughterhouse early, pulling up chairs in the front row, and doing just that. I don’t do it for all of you – I run this site because I love the Lakers; I write about the game because basketball holds a stature in my life that most reserve for things that they can actually control or have input on. I do it because it interests me and I care about the outcome.

I want basketball back and I want it back as soon as possible. For me, for you, for all of us. Us that follow games via boxscores when we’re not near a TV. or a radio. Us that hop on twitter to share in the joy of a close game between the Wizards and the Blazers in March while typing #leaguepassalert to notify everyone.

Bethlehem Shoals tweeted that “The lockout is a business story and a labor story. Not a sports one. Deal.” and he’s right. But I’m hoping for the day that we actually do have basketball to cover comes back soon. I’m tired of sitting in the front row watching the sausage get made.

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There is still optimism, though. Ken Berger – who has covered the lockout and the CBA negotiations like Deion Sanders with a notepad – writes that the sides are actually closer than they’re letting on.

Despite the intransigence of the owners in their goal of achieving profitability and a level playing field … despite the players’ almost religious zeal for guaranteed contracts and other perks achieved over the years … and despite formidable external forces that threatened to implode the negotiations … the NBA and the players association are only about $80 million a year apart on the economics of a new collective bargaining agreement, multiple people with knowledge of the deal told CBSSports.com. So even though all parties left a Times Square hotel looking grim-faced and feeling disappointed, the two sides in theory have moved so close to a deal that it is almost incomprehensible they would choose hundreds of millions in losses — or billions from a completely lost season — instead.

Granted, the floated proposals may be the last best offer and if those aren’t accepted now (or in the coming days) both sides may retreat to their corners intent on taking back the ground they’ve given in this battle for billions. But since I’m an optimist and someone that’s held firm on the idea that the season will start on time, I’ll call the glass half full for a few more days.

After all, my seat in the front row is still warm and if I’m going to watch the sausage get made I might as well stay until the end.

Raising The Floor

Darius Soriano —  October 4, 2011

Competitive balance is the new buzzword of the lockout. It’s so important, it’s become a sticking point in the CBA negotiations. The owners want to limit team by team spending in order to preserve it. Whether through a hard cap or through a luxury tax system so punitive to curb spending, the thought is that if the highest spenders have a ceiling low enough to reduce league wide payrolls, competitive balance will be improved.

Thus the argument is laid out that if you simply put a system in place that makes teams like the Lakers, Mavericks, and Knicks spend less, the overall health of the league will improve.

But what of the teams that live at the other end of that spectrum? What of the teams that willfully spend as little as possible? Few people seem to discuss them very much when talking about the health of the league. At Sactown Royalty, Tom Ziller (in a larger – and very good – post about the correlation between spending and winning) makes the following point about teams that live near the spending floor in relation to teams that are willing to dish out more money on player contracts:

Teams that are rebuilding are going to mimic the Kings and spend as little as possible. Teams that can compete for the playoffs or a title will spend as much as they can. There will be teams spending as much as legally possible — to Hell with reasonable, look at how much Mark Cuban has spent over the past decade — and teams saving every dime in terms of future flexibility. There will be a substantial salary spread as large as is possible under salary floors and caps.

Under the recently expired CBA, the spending floor was 75% of the salary cap. This past season, the Kings actually found themselves below that threshhold and faced the prospect having to add players or pay the players they had more in order to get above the spending floor. The fact that the Kings reached such lows on the payroll level was a big story, especially within the context of their owners financial issues and the desire to move the team to Anaheim. But from a competitive balance standpoint, this story got little traction.

Tangent now to the NFL who in their most recent CBA agreement this past summer raised their salary floor to 90% of the salary cap. In past agreements that number was 84% but by raising it, they’ve essentially ensured that low spending teams will have to spend on par with every other franchise. Some of this was likely in response to the NFL’s uncapped year in which there was no spending floor and several teams greatly reduced spending, but I believe it’s more in response to claims that some teams habitually spend close to the mininum possible in order to maximize profits with little incentive to improve the team. (Note, this mindset doesn’t have to be limited to teams with little chance of winning. If you’re a contender that’s below the cap – as the Eagles and Patriots have historically been – you can still limit spending under the assumption that your team is good enough to win without further payroll commitments.)

Will the NBA take note? If competitive balance is going to be the canned phrase tossed around by ownership for the desire to harden the salary cap and limit spending, I hope they’re looking at the other end of the spectrum too.

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As an aside, I don’t believe spending more will necessarily lead to greater success on the court. Teams like the Lakers and Mavs don’t win more because they spend more, they win more because they’ve spent more on players that actually make a difference. The Isiah Thomas Knicks are the prime example of this. As I’ve said many times before, there are only a handful of truly great players that deserve max contracts yet many players have them; spending more isn’t always smart.

Not to mention some of the best players in the league, at least as of last season, were on their original rookie contracts that paid them pennies in comparison to their actual value. You think Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are worth what they made last year? The presense of rookie scale deals and a cap on individual salaries means that market value will always be a relative term in compared to what players actually earn.

All that said, if spending – and it’s relationship to competitive balance – is going to take center stage in these negotiations I hope the other side of this story is reported as well. Because as teams cry poor and lament their inability to compete based solely on the fact that other teams spend through the roof, I’m hoping that the league recognizes that it can do something about that disparity in spending that has little to do with lowering the ceiling on the high payroll teams.