Archives For November 2011

Kobe’s Finals Chapter

J.M. Poulard —  November 9, 2011

At some point in the near future, Kobe Bryant will retire and leave basketball fans around the world with a multitude of memories that will leave us collectively shaking our heads. On that front, the Lakers superstar may not exactly be on the same level as Michael Jackson; but his body of work reminds me of the King of Pop.

For instance, Jacko gave fans moments such as the moonwalk, Thriller, the Smooth Criminal lean and the Beat It choreography that are now immortalized on Youtube. In the same breath, few players can match Bryant’s incomparable feats down the stretch of big games; that much like Michael Jackson, will live seemingly forever thanks in large part to today’s social media (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc…).

Indeed, moments such as the lob pass to Shaq in the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Game 4 masterpiece finish against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals, the 3-point shot to send Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals to overtime and the contortionist shot against Dwight Howard in the 2009 NBA Finals are just a handful of the amazingly spectacular plays in Kobe Bryant’s career.

The two-time Finals MVP is sure to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame based on his achievements and his teams’ ability to deliver championships.

And yet, if we wanted to nitpick his career, it would be impossible to avoid his overall performances in the Finals; especially in comparison to some other greats.

Bryant has shown a high propensity to deliver in big games for the Lakers, however when presenting his basketball résumé; one cannot avoid the fact that he has had some subpar performances in the championship round throughout his career.

The best evidence to offer on this topic would be Bryant’s play during the 2004 NBA Finals. Indeed, Kobe spent the entire season balancing court dates with basketball games and played brilliantly. Mind you, his performance in the championship series led to Tayshaun Prince being crowned as the proverbial “Kobe stopper” because he held the superstar to a rather pedestrian 22.6 points per game on 38.1 percent field goal shooting.

Further compounding the issue, Shaquille O’Neal had a terrific series offensively, as evidenced by his 26.6 points per game on 63.1 percent field goal shooting; however he only shot the ball 84 times in comparison to his star teammate who attempted 113 field goals during the 2004 Finals.

Granted, one poor showing in the Finals in a decorated career is hardly worth mentioning; but a multitude of them has to be characterized as a trend. Have a look at Kobe Bryant’s statistical output in the NBA Finals throughout his career:

Finals

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

FG

2000

15.6

4.6

4.2

1.0

.367

2001

24.6

7.8

5.8

1.4

.415

2002

26.8

5.8

5.3

1.5

.514

2004

22.6

2.8

4.4

1.8

.381

2008

25.7

4.7

5.0

2.7

.405

2009

32.4

5.6

7.4

1.4

.430

2010

28.6

8.0

3.9

2.1

.405

Averages

24.7

5.6

4.9

1.7

.412

For the most part, Kobe’s production has been great however his shooting percentages leave much to be desired. His two worst Finals showings occurred in the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers (in which the Lakers were victorious) and the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons (where they were defeated in five games).

In addition, other than the 2004 Pistons and maybe the 2001 76ers (with Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and Raja Bell), none of the teams that the Lakers star guard faced in the title round had the Bruce Bowen-type defenders to throw at Kobe to essentially sit on his every move and limit his effectiveness.

And for better or worse, this is where Bryant has earned the reputation of a selfish gunner in the minds of many.

With rings on the line and basketball being played in front of an international audience on television, Kobe Bryant has showed the propensity to often take low percentage shots and consequently conclude games with an unimpressive shooting mark (the six-for-24 game is often cited as evidence of this).

Consequently, Kobe’s statistical output in championship series is on par with the playoff averages of one of the league’s most famous gunners: Allen Iverson.

Oddly enough, Iverson will always carry the reputation of the toughest little big man that did anything and everything possible to carry his team to victory (insert practice joke here); and yet, the former people’s champ (most saw the crossover king as such after he rocked Jordan to sleep) lacks the sustained playoff success to be mentioned in the same conversation as Kobe. Indeed, in 14 NBA seasons, Iverson appeared in 71 playoff games while Kobe Bryant has played in 208 games in 15 seasons.

Save for the 50-point games against the Toronto Raptors and the 48 points scored in a Finals game against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 playoffs, one struggles to recall any truly dominant playoff performance by The Answer. Mind you, players can be effective in many ways; whether it’s by playing excellent defense or coming up big down the stretch of games. But on that front, Iverson is not close to being in the same realm as Kobe Bryant.

Thus, when discussing the Black Mamba, it’s important to do so with a hint of perspective. If we look purely at his numbers, many players have performed better than Kobe on the big stage; but not many have often delivered at the end of ball games to help either steal or secure a win at the expense of their opponent like Bryant has.

Consequently, Bryant’s slot in the pyramid of great players is relatively tough to evaluate given that the likes of Magic, Bird and Jordan all played their best in the Finals all the while piercing the heart of their opponents with a myriad of daggers to close out games.

The former league MVP is clearly one of the all time greats, but one has to wonder if his performances in the NBA Finals will eventually be swept under the rug or if they will be the one deciding factor that keeps him from being mentioned as the greatest Laker of all, as well as the greatest player of all time.

Only a matter of time before we find out…

“It’s business, not personal.”

I’ve always found that phrase to be both accurate and disingenuous at the same time. It’s usually uttered by someone in a position of power getting ready to impact another person’s life in a negative way or by someone who’s seen the affects of such a move and is using the phrase as a shield.

Right now, in the battle over BRI percentage points and the system that will govern the NBA, we’re seeing the same thing. Owners want a better business model. They want a larger piece of the revenue pie and a system – in their words – that allows them to better compete both financially and on the hardwood. Their hardline stance is based off business, it’s not personal.

Meanwhile, the players argue the same thing. They want to retain the earning ability they, as a union, have fought for and obtained over the past several decades. They want a system that allows for player movement to all teams, with few restrictions on what a player can earn with one franchise versus another. The provisions the owners seek that handicap tax paying teams by lessing the contract value and length of mid-level exception deals and disallow sign and trades by those teams limit players’ options. So, their fight rages on because it’s business, not personal.

These are the issues still at hand in these collective bargaining talks and both sides refuse to give in because from a business standpoint these things matter. However, don’t let anyone tell you it’s all that matters. Because despite the rhetoric stating otherwise, it’s personal too.

Especially from the players’ side. The players are both worker and talent in this equation. Any bargaining point that speaks to their value is not only a business move, but one that is tied directly to their worth as people who provide this specialized service. It’s cliche, but there’s nothing more personal than the time and effort the players put into improving their games (and as a result, an improvement to themselves). The counter point is that there are guys like Eddy Curry or Baron Davis (or many others) that don’t take that improvement seriously; that rest on their laurels after their signature assures them millions of dollars. But for every Baron or Curry, there’s a Kobe, Durant, Rose, Dirk, etc, etc that do take it seriously. On twitter it’s become a punch line to read “rise and grind” tweets by athletes that make claims of going to the gym to work out or improve their game(s). But just because it’s repetitive and a bore to read, doesn’t mean it’s not actually happening. Most of these guys care and want to improve; basketball is their lifeblood and with careers short and the majority of them not guaranteed a huge payday the work must be put in.

This is why fairness has become a word that’s crept into the lexicon being thrown out by the players. In the press conference following Saturday’s (again) failed bargaining session, Derek Fisher said:

We expressed as we have the entire time … if we continue to try to meet you on the economics we need a fair system. We made the moves that we needed to make to get this deal done based on the economics…they call it 51-49, but it’s really 50, with a system that is not a fair system, so that’s obviously very frustrating for us.

Fairness is a tricky concept, though. Especially when business is involved. That’s because business is about leverage. Negotiations are about what you can get the other side to agree to. What’s fair takes a backseat to what is and is not achieveable and readjusting your position based off your conclusions.

This is why the players have continued to move in these negotiations, conceding on issue after issue and handing over BRI points at nearly every meeting. They’re not doing that because they think it’s fair, they’re doing it because the owners strength and leverage in the talks demands it. If one thing is clear it’s that the players understand the path to a deal has been in moving towards the owners, not the opposite.

But when is enough, enough? When do you expect the group on the other side of the bargaining table to meet you halfway and how does that affect the tenor of the negotiation?

The answers are, we’re there and we’re seeing it now.

At this point, I can’t blame the players for holding out for the last few things that matter to them. Because even though I don’t think the concept of fairness belongs in these talks, the fact is that concept is firmly in place. The players have (seemingly) given all they can give and as the owners continue to take it’s now beyond discouraging. Understand the framework of a deal is usually put into terms of “what both sides can live with.” But, if you’re on the side that’s given nearly everything in the negotiation and the other side has simply asked for more, “living with” yourself becomes harder, no? I mean, these players have to go back and work for these teams and give their all in an effort to win in an environment that’s surely tainted by these negotiations.

It’s very much true that we’re at the time where a deal will either be made or the season is in jeaopardy. Stern’s deadline for the union to accept the offer on the table is tomorrow at the close of business and today the player reps from each team huddle in New York for a strategy session on how to proceed. And while I hope both the owners and players will meet one last time to iron out the final disputed issues, that’s no guarantee.

Just understand that whatever comes from this, whether you agree with it or not, fairness is an issue in these talks. I just hope that both sides find that middle ground where they can salvage this thing.

Today is a special day. It’s special because we thought we’d never make it this date, but here we are. Twenty years ago, Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive and would retire from the Lakers immediately. By the time today came, I think many of us thought our worst fears would have already come true. That we would have watched one of the very best players we’d ever seen whither away and go through a horrid decline in health. But it hasn’t happened. Instead, Magic is still here with us today. Still smiling, still contributing to the game.

And while his playing career was cut short, no one can take away the memories. I’ll never forget how watching him play made me feel; how much pure joy it brought me. So on a day that will be always be remembered for Magic walking away, I remember him how I always will: as the dominant player he was. Here’s to 20 more years.

Today, after 8 days since their last meeting, the owners and players will resume talking about how to kick fans in the stomach again divide the league’s revenues and what system the league should operate under in order to bring the NBA back. As we’ve discussed in this space before, the sides are pretty close to a deal and only need to hammer out the details on the last few, yet significant, issues.

However, in the lead up to these talks, the rhetoric and positioning has only ramped up and become more strategic. Howard Beck is reporting that Michael Jordan leads a group of 10-14 hardline owners that will not go above a 50/50 split on BRI and would actually prefer the owners get a bigger piece of the pie in any agreement. Jordan taking such a strong approach can be seen as hypocritical as he has a history of saying some things about NBA ownership that mirror today’s players position. Or, Jordan can simply be taking a turncoat position and looking out for his own interests (it’s not like that would be out of character for MJ). Either way, the significance of Jordan being trotted out as the face of this movement is interesting to me because he is the lone owner that has a true history with the players the owners now oppose. His Jumpman brand is endorsed by several of today’s top players. He competed against many of these guys both as a Bull and a Wizard and the ones that weren’t yet in the league during his career likely see MJ as an idol. They know Jordan as the ruthless winner that always comes out on top, so for the owners to position him as a key cog in how these talks proceed surely has some psychological advantages.

That said, it’s not like the players are simply going to back down without making their last big stand in these negotiations. On Friday, reports surfaced of a conference call between players and lawyers with the union decertification being the main topic of discussion. The reports further state that a group of 50 players are seriously considering pushing for decertification – a measure that would disband the union for the purposes of filing an anti-trust lawsuit that could lift the lockout. Decertification would be the “nuclear” option as it would put this entire process into the hands of the courts and away from both sides’ leaders. Up until this point in the process the union has vehemently denied that decertification would be an option they’d explore. However, as the talks have progressed and the owners seemingly negotiating in a manner where offers are made, taken away, then put back on the table under the guise of “progress” and “concessions”, this small sect of players seem to be sick of it and are willing to take this step.

So, as talks continue with both sides showing their fangs to the media and putting on a public display of strength, we fans continue to sit and wait for the word that there’s a breakthrough. But, the same questions still run through my mind. Will the owners give anything back that can allow the players to save some face in these talks? Will the players finally succumb to the owners demands by giving everything the owners want by effectively folding? Will the return of the mediator keep both sides honest in these negotiations? The answers to these questions could prove to be the difference between a deal being made over the next couple of days or us not having an NBA season at all.

Kareem’s Missing Trophy

J.M. Poulard —  November 4, 2011

At the conclusion of every NBA season, the league awards the Larry O’Brien trophy to the team that was victorious in the NBA Finals. And as the champagne gets sprayed onto players and families start to make their way onto the podium, David Stern presents the Finals MVP award to the player that played best on the winning team. Normally, this translates into the best player on the title team winning the award, but every now and then we get it wrong and award the Bill Russell trophy to the wrong player.

Consider this fictional scenario: it’s the spring 1997 and the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz are tied at two games apiece in the NBA Finals. Going into Game 5 in Utah, Michael Jordan is clearly under the weather but finds the required energy and strength to give us one of the best performances ever in what will be known around the world as simply the Flu Game.

Because Jordan exerted most of his energy in Game 5, he is unable to suit up in Game 6 for the Bulls. As a result, Chicago starts Scottie Pippen at shooting guard and Toni Kukoc at small forward. Pippen plays one of the most masterful games of his illustrious career, scoring 27 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, dishing out seven assists and getting four steals. In addition, his help defense on Karl Malone forces the Mailman to shoot 10-for-32 from the field as the Bulls win the title at home by five points.

The Bulls start celebrating, the fans are euphoric and Jerry Krause is already entertaining interviews and telling people that organizations and not players win championships.

Michael Jordan is not at the United Center, he instead remained home to rest in the event of a potential Game 7 but catches the trophy presentation on television.

David Stern presents the Larry O’Brien trophy to Jerry Reinsdorf and then makes this next statement:

“I would like to congratulate the Utah Jazz for a great Finals performance. Chicago outlasted Utah in a tough six-game series and tonight one star played shooting guard, point guard, power forward and even a little bit of center to help the Chicago Bulls clinch the title. The NBA Finals MVP goes to Scottie Pippen”.

The scenario seems ludicrous right? By the way, had this happened, I’m convinced Jordan would have played until 2003 with the Bulls just to win a few more Finals MVP trophies.

Pippen’s performance in Game 6 would have been nothing short of spectacular, but awarding him the Bill Russell trophy would have made little sense. He would have carried the team to a title for one game while Jordan would have done most of the heavy lifting during the whole regular season, playoffs and five of the six Finals games. Logic would dictate that he be awarded the trophy and most would agree.

And yet, a similar situation manifested itself in the 1980 NBA Finals and the voters got it wrong. Indeed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was arguably the most dominant player during he 1979-80 NBA season, boasting averages of 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.4 blocks per game on 60.4 percent field goal shooting during the regular season and averages of 31.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.9 blocks per game on 57.2 percent field goal shooting during the playoffs. There is no other way to say this: Kareem was the man.

In the 1980 NBA Finals, Abdul-Jabbar was a force to be reckoned with during the series despite badly spraining his ankle in Game 5. As bad as the injury was, the superstar center finished the game and carried the Lakers to a victory and a 3-2 series lead against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the six-time league MVP would be unable to play in Game 6 and would not even make the trip to Philadelphia. And with their main scoring option missing, the Lakers improvised and started Magic Johnson at center and he went on to have the game of his life (as a rookie no less): 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. Needles to say, the young point guard did it all.

Brent Musberger of CBS said at the time:

“He has played center, forward, and guard in this game. He’ll pack the uniforms afterward.”

As a result, Magic Johnson was crowned the NBA Finals MVP.

Magic’s play was definitely worthy of the award given his performance in the deciding game, but should Abdul-Jabbar’s huge contributions during the 1980 playoffs and the Finals have been completely disregarded in favor of the rookie’s play? Highly doubtful.

Numbers do not always tell the whole story but in the case of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they paint a picture of dominance during the 1980 championship series. The player formerly known as Lew Alcindor averaged an impressive 33.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 4.6 blocks per game on 54.9 percent field goal shooting in the Finals.

To put those figures in perspective, they should be in the pantheon of great big man performances in the title round with the 1995 Finals performance of Hakeem Olajuwon as well as the 2000 Finals of Shaquille O’Neal. Have a look below:

NBA Finals

Player

PPG

RPG

APG

SPG

BPG

FG%

1980

Abdul-Jabbar

33.4

13.6

3.2

0.6

4.6

.549

1995

Olajuwon

32.8

11.5

5.5

2.0

2.0

.483

2000

O’Neal

38.0

16.7

2.3

1.0

2.7

.611

Despite Kareem’s terrific output, he was forced to watch Magic accept his award at the conclusion of Game 6. To be fair, Johnson had a monster series in his own right, averaging 21. Points, 11.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game on 57.3 percent field goal shooting; but Abdul-Jabbar made everything happen for the Los Angeles Lakers on both offense and defense. He was the team’s main scoring option as well as its defensive anchor and thus made the game easier for his teammates in a way that very few in the history of the league have ever done.

Ultimately though, the one thing that mattered to both players was winning.

The rookie guard must have been ecstatic to lead his team to a Game 6 victory over the 76ers for the title, while the Lakers star center was probably proud to see his teammates win the championship despite his absence; however, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will always have a Finals MVP trophy missing from his trophy case.

But we all know…