Archives For November 2011

Magic’s Forgotten Finals

J.M. Poulard —  November 25, 2011

One of the worst kept secrets in NBA basketball is that the presence of superstars on a roster can help build a championship team. A truly great player can propel a team not only to titles, but also help boost the value of a franchise. For instance, LeBron James helped the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the 2007 NBA Finals and turned the team into the hottest ticket in town. The team may never have won a title with James; but his play in a Cavaliers jersey certainly helped turn around the franchise.

The end result is that superstars often get the lion’s share of the credit when they win but they also get most of the blame directed towards them when they lose. Is it fair? Hardly. But those are the expectations that come along with being The Man and being paid like it.

But what often gets lost in the process is how underrated some superstars are.

Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest player the game has ever seen, and yet his performance in the 1991 NBA Finals is rarely mentioned amongst the greatest in the league’s history. For a variety of reasons, it seems almost forgotten but it was still impressive nonetheless.

In the same breath, the 1991 NBA Finals pitted Michael Jordan versus Magic Johnson; a match up that would eventually be viewed as a passing of the torch.

Jordan was a superstar that had captured the world’s attention with his impressive scoring ability as well as his surreal athletic gifts. He had not yet been to the mountaintop, and was hoping to finally be crowned as a champion at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Magic Johnson on the other hand was 31 years old, a five-time NBA champion and the proud owner of three MVP awards. Gone were the trademark goatee as well as some of his speed and quickness; but he was still Magic.

The Chicago Bulls won the 1991 NBA title in five games against the Los Angeles Lakers, but Magic Johnson played that series much like he did his entire career: as the greatest point guard the game has ever seen.

The Bulls were younger, faster, more athletic and quicker to the ball; but the one thing they failed to do was shut down Magic.

During the 1991 Finals, Chicago had Scottie Pippen hound Magic Johnson in the backcourt while he brought the ball up and also had Michael Jordan alternate and do the same in order to get the Lakers point guard to exert a lot of energy. In addition, they sent Horace Grant to double-team him before he crossed half court with the hope that the added pressure would disrupt the Lakers’ rhythm. And just for good measure, the Bulls alternated their half court defense against Magic, hoping to keep him guessing.

Phil Jackson had his team trap the Lakers’ superstar in the pick and roll on occasion, other times they would just make a hard hedge to disrupt his timing or they would simply go underneath screens and dare Magic to beat them from deep. Also, the Bulls were smart enough to defend the 6’9 point guard with only one defender when he went down to the low block; in an effort to force Johnson to score instead of allowing him to get his teammates involved.

The Bulls won the series thanks in large part to their crisp offensive execution as well as their smothering defense; but not because they shut down Johnson.

Magic was his usual self against Chicago (albeit the Bulls made him work hard for everything); rebounding the ball, getting out in transition, scoring, dishing and throwing out high fives to his teammates. He directed traffic beautifully and set up the likes of Terry Teagle, A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Sam Perkins for easy scores. Showtime may have looked a little different during the 1980s, but this team with Magic was definitely a carbon copy of the Showtime Lakers, and Johnson was the one responsible for that.

Although Magic’s performance in the 1991 Finals was not the best of his career (his play in the 1987 and also the 1988 Finals have to be up there in the top performances ever in the title round), had any other point guard played as well as he had in that series; many would have been raced to say that it had been one of the best performances by a player on a Finals losing team. But because we had seen Magic do it before, it barely generated any publicity.

Furthermore, less than five months later, the Lakers superstar would announce his retirement from basketball because he was HIV positive, and just like that his basketball talent stopped being a topic of conversation.

Many will remember and even look up the footage of the three-time league MVP’s play during the 1980s, but it’s worth noting that he was still at the top of his game when he retired in November 1991.

Magic Johnson won championships in high school, college, the NBA and also captured a gold medal during the Olympics. In other words, he is a proven winner.

In his 13 NBA seasons, Johnson’s teams made it to the Finals nine times; and in his last Finals appearance (against the Bulls), he averaged 18.6 points, 12.4 assists, 8.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game on 43.1 percent field goal shooting (he also had two triple doubles in the series).

The Los Angeles Lakers did not win the title during the 1990-91 season, but Magic Johnson certainly was not the reason. He played like a Hall of Fame type player and yet was completely underrated while doing so.

That Lakers postseason run may have been forgotten by many, but at least the player is and will continue to be remembered.

Thankful For What I Have

Darius Soriano —  November 24, 2011

I rarely invoke my personal life in this space. After all, this is a Laker site not a place for you to read about me. However, on this Thanksgiving, I find myself reflective in ways beyond how the Lakers will solve their point guard issues or who they’ll sign as a fourth big man.

You see, just a couple of days ago, my daughter reached the ripe age of 4 months. In that short time, I’ve watched her grow, reach developmental milestones, and fill my life in ways I didn’t even know possible. I have so much in my personal life to be thankful of that it’s not even funny. Every day I reflect on this and can’t help but smile at how lucky I am.

Drifting back to basketball, the other side of that of course, is that for longer than my daughter has been alive the NBA has been locked out. Transactions and games have been replaced by meetings on BRI splits, press conferences with both sides calling each other liars, and now lawsuits being filed. So, unless you’re being cynical or sarcastic, there’s not much to be thankful for as a Laker fan or an NBA fan today. Sure, back channel negotiations are happening and the idea of a 66 game season has been floated as a possibility should a settlement/agreement be reached this weekend.

However, until something actually comes out of those talks I’ll not get my hopes up. Instead, today, I’ll focus on the things that really matter: family, friends, and a good meal (or two). After all, basketball will be back at some point. There will be plenty of time to discuss the Lakers, be it X’s and O’s or who they should sign in free agency. Plenty of time to relish the wins and complain about the losses.

Today, though, I give thanks for everything I do have rather than wasting another day worrying about the things I don’t. I hope you all do the same and enjoy today with whoever you choose to spend it with.

The lockout has me not only missing the NBA, but missing the backcourt that forced me to fall in love with the Lakers: Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. I was born into a Lakers loving family, so I would have been a fan regardless, but Jones and Van Exel are why I’m so heavily invested in the Forum Blue and Gold. With Thanksgiving set to take place tomorrow, I just want to let you guys know that I’m thankful for the influence Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel had on my hoops fandom.

Around The World (Wide Web)

Darius Soriano —  November 21, 2011

From Brian Kamenetzky, Land O Lakers: The list of his losses in the event of a “nuclear winter” is hefty. Start with the obvious, namely $25.2 million in salary his bank account won’t see. Yes, he’s earned — earned– vast sums over the course of his career (pocket change over $196 million, for those scoring at home), but I don’t care how rich you are, losing $25 million is no fun. What he loses on the court is tougher to price out. Kobe has missed only 94 games in his 15-year career (and only 16 since ’06-’07) because of injury or suspension, but should the season disappear he will have lost a total of 114 games thanks to labor strife. Thirty-two in 1998-’99, and another 82 now. Just as the money is gone forever, so are the stats he’d likely have posted. During the first lockout-shortened season, his first as a full-time starter, Bryant averaged 19.9 points a game. That’s 640 points, give or take, disappearing into the ether. Using last season’s scoring average (25.3) as a guide, it’s reasonable to believe a full 2011-12 season would bring another 2,000, give or take. Maybe games are played and he gets some of the missing inventory back. But maybe not.

From Mark Medina, LA Times: “Walt was a man of extremely high character, who served the Lakers for many years as a player, a scout and a consultant,” Lakers Owner Jerry Buss said in a statement. “Our sympathy, thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time, and we feel fortunate that he was part of the Lakers family for so many years.” Hazzard spent his first three NBA seasons playing with the Lakers, though his best years were spent with the Seattle Supersonics, whom acquired him in the 1967 expansion draft. His connection to the Lakers still remained, as Hazzard joined the team’s front office and became its primary West Coast advance NBA scout. Although he suffered a stroke in 1996, Hazzard remained on staff as a special consultant, focusing primarily on community relations. In turn, Hazzard’s son, Rasheed, became an advance scout and a special assistant under Phil Jackson.

From Kevin Ding, The OC Register: To understand why prominent agents such as Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegen, Jeff Schwartz and Arn Tellem have been so frantic over the players’ concessions to the owners in collective bargaining can be revealed through some quick, eye-opening math: Seeing 2 percent of the much-discussed Basketball Related Income go the owners’ way instead of the players’ way wouldn’t really do much to the average player, whose $5.15 million salary would become $4.96 million. (That’s $80 million for two BRI points, 430 total NBA players, $186,000 each.) But if you take that $186,000 lost and multiply it by 27 player clients (the average that the aforementioned five agents represent) and then count the agent’s 3 percent commission (he can take up to 4 percent) and multiply it by 30 years (while the players’ average career is less than five years, the agent will be repping players who aren’t even born yet) … you get $4 ½ million of his own money you could realistically say an agent would lose by conceding that 2 percent of BRI to the owners. It’s a crude formula not even factoring in annual growth, but the message should be clear: The agents were doing their own money grab this offseason – and with less reason than anyone to care if it happened to cost everyone the 2011-12 NBA season. So they stalled the momentum of negotiations more than once, staging all their conference calls with each other and pushing their message on players whose competitive streaks jibe with militant pride. It’s undeniably compelling to preach about current players’ obligation to fight against greedy owners also for the sake of future players … and guess who will be taking commission off those future players?

From C.A. Clark, Silver Screen & Roll: And now, backed into a corner, the players have made that risky move.  Short stacked and long odds against them, they have one card in the deck that can help them.  They’ve turned to the legal process to try and force the situation back in their favor.  We know its probably not going to work.  They know its probably not going to work.  And in the end, filing this lawsuit may end up causing them to have to cede even more at the negotiating table than they would have if they just sucked it up and signed a crappy deal.  But there is an odd compulsion in these situations to play it to the end instead of walking away with the shirt on your back. We fans?  We’re a different kind of square, with no choice but to sit and wait patiently for the game to end so the games can begin.  In that sense, the inevitable breakdown of negotiations is a mildly positive step, because this game can only end when both sides are satisfied, or when one side has been crushed.  Considering where the two parties started, the latter option was really the only viable solution.  The only problem is that we’re now waiting on a legal system that is patently slow, and deadlines for resolution are fast approaching.  So, while it’s nice to know that the question itself is progressing towards an answer, that like answer remains the doomsday scenario we’ve spent equal time dismissing and preparing for … a lost year of basketball.

From David Murphy, Searching For Slava: Finally, there’s a formidable third party in the house – the legal system. The NBA is represented by Paul Clement, the former solicitor general under George W. Bush. Clement has argued before the Supreme Court, 54 times. The players have David Boies on their side, the guy who brought Microsoft to its knees, aka Corporate America’s No. 1 hired gun. He also may be as Henry Abbott writes, the calmest voice in the room right now. These guys are at the top of their games and to be honest, they’ve got bigger ideological fish to fry than the NBA. Some cases you want before the Supreme Court, some you just want to settle. I can’t see this going to trial. It’s just way too much time, money and bother. The presence of these legal giants provides ample cover for both parties to come to an agreement – they simply shrug and say, “we got the best advice in the country, it’s business, not personal. We’re taking the deal.”  I.e., David Boies trumps David Stern and Paul Clement trumps Jeffrey Kessler. And in the end, the final agreement, apart from a few bells and bows, probably won’t look much different than the one left on the table. And so, after months of bleak imagery, after writing that it’s all about union busting, after dystopian morass and avarice, bloodletting and the screaming death spiral, I’m flippin’ on a dime. I think there will be a season, that a relatively speedy legal settlement (costly commissions attached of course) will ultimately allow a modicum of normalcy to return. Or as a famous television lawyer was fond of saying, “bygones”.

From Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: The chase for NBA talent is fraught with all kinds of hazards, and even the best human resource managers in the league are going to have an expensive blemish or two on their record. For this reason, a push for shorter contracts has been a central part of the “system issues” conversation since well before the expiration of the previous collective bargaining agreement. Whether you interpret this as a means for bad teams to seek protection from themselves, a smart way to keep spending in check, or a way to prevent deadbeats from profiting without performing, reduced contract length is almost certain to find its way into the next CBA, whenever the deal happens to be executed. In the owners’ Nov. 11 proposal to the players’ union, the length in contract of the mid-level exception signees for both taxpaying and non-taxpaying teams was reduced from five years to either four or three years. Maximum contract length for players with Bird rights was reduced from six years to five, and from five years to four for non-Bird players. In addition, option years for players earning greater than the league average were eliminated (which would effectively shorten contracts vis-a-vis the last CBA), as were sign-and-trade deals for taxpaying teams after Year 2 of contracts (ditto). What are the repercussions of shorter contracts? Shorter contracts mean more turnover, which means more free agency. And free agency, lest we forget, has always been the vehicle for the creation of bad contracts.

The Magic Man

Darius Soriano —  November 18, 2011

Some things you just can’t stop watching. The wizadry is simply too captivating. That’s how I feel about this Magic Johnson reel that started circling the internet yesterday. The passing, the hook shots, the buzzer beaters, and Chick Hearn providing the commentary for every single play. I hope you enjoy it as much as me. (h/t to Andrew Ungvari for pointing this out to me)