Archives For NBA general

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

The other day in some Fast Break Thoughts, I mentioned I’d been watching an old Bulls game and had this to say about the Triangle offense:

I’m going to miss the Triangle Offense. Watching the Bulls zip the ball around, run all the actions of Tex Winters’ sets, and get the type of looks that allowed them to erase a huge first half deficit was a sight to see. With Phil retiring (again), the only team left running the Triangle is Minnesota. But with Ricky Rubio coming over and Rambis’ job security twisting in the wind, that won’t last long.

Well, Kurt Rambis’ status as the Timberwolves’ head coach is no longer uncertain. Reports say that he will be fired today. And with his dismissal, there’s not a single coach in the NBA that will run the Triangle offense.

I may have been raised on the fast break play of the Showtime Lakers, but I came of age as a basketball fan during the Bulls’ run to six championships and the Lakers stampede to five more in the last decade plus. And while there was beauty (and success) with both styles, I’ve come to love the half court wizardry of the famed triple post sets.

Watching a once in a lifetime player like Magic Johnson orchestrate a full court offense was glorious, but there was something soothing watching the interchangeable parts of those triangle teams move from the wing to the low block; from the low block to the elbow; from the elbow into the two guard front. I loved seeing players read and react to what the defense was doing and still find a high percentage look.

The flexibility the offense offered was also stunning. Both the Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc) and the Lakers (Shaq, Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Odom) had great isolation players and the triangle allowed those players to get to the positions on the court in which they’d be most successful to break down a defense. Whether running center opposite actions to get post players the ball in the post or running the countless elbow actions to free up players to work from the mid-range, this offense offered a variety of options at every turn to get great players the ball in positions where the defense was most compromised.

And it wasn’t just stars that benefited. Role players also found their niche moving into the open spaces of the offense, freeing themselves where they could best take advantage of their (more limited) skill sets. Whether it was Ron Harper finding space on dive cuts to work the interior against smaller guards, Rick Fox operating at the elbow where he could look for his own shot or use his underrated passing skill to pick out a teammate, or shooters like Fisher/Shaw/Paxon/Armstrong/Rice/Horry hovering around the three point line, the triangle continuously worked the defense over to create quality looks.

And while the common thread was smart players, the tools they used were spacing and cohesion.  They were handed a blue print of principles and options - not scripted plays – and told to go make it work on the floor. Players would be 10-15 feet apart at all times. They’d play in a two guard front with the strong side flooded with three players to form the famed sideline triangle. Out of those sets we’d see options of every aspect of basketball teamwork – with post ups, pick and rolls, and pressure releases all readily available to execute. The ball could stay on the strong side or easily rotate back to the weak side where cuts and screens combined to free up players and form other triangles seamlessly. When run correctly, it looked effortless while proving deadly all at the same time.

Of course, it didn’t always work. Ball stopping and an over-dependence on shot making could grind the offense’s flow to a halt. Dribbling in lieu of passing to the open man – something we’ve seen too often in recent years – often turned what should be a beautiful choreography into a disjointed mess. Too many times the smartest players with the most talent (that means you, Kobe and Michael) could manipulate the offense by dictating where passes went in order to get the desired outcome of a certain shot from a certain part of the floor. This rendered the “read and react” aspect of the O useless and turned the triangle into something scripted and predictable.

Not to mention that we’ve only seen the offense work with some of the league’s most transcendent talents. Michael, Shaq, Kobe – all historical legends that served as lynchpins to the offense’s success. All were heavily leaned on to be shot makers and creators, using their otherworldly ability to defy the shot clock or position on the floor to still produce two points when they were most needed. Many could successfully argue that those players could succeed in any offense and elevate teammates regardless of what the greaseboard’s X’s and O’s dictated. And then of course, there’s Phil Jackson and Tex Winter pulling the strings to it all. It surely helps when hall of famers are the guys doing the teaching and barking out the orders.

All that said, the proof is in the success of the offense and how it was able to take on the burden of accommodating such stars while still maximizing their gifts. The offense gave them room to grow as players while also giving structure. Would we have ever seen Michael and Kobe develop their post games without the triangle offering the opportunity to work the low block? Would Shaq have ever become the deadly passer that he evolved into without the spacing, cutting, and angles built into the offense of his prime years? I suppose there are arguments either way but I’ll happily take my chances with those guys growing in the triangle and using it as a conduit for expanding who they could become as players.

And now, there’s no one left to run it. No coaches to teach it and no superstars to hone their games learning it. Maybe it’s for the best as the league goes back to a fast breaking style with pick and rolls dominating the half court action. I’ll miss it dearly, though. When firing on all cylinders, the movement and options that sprung from it inspired a beautiful brand of basketball.

Growing up a Laker fan, I’m a fan of the big man. I was weaned on the graceful stylings of Kareem and spent my early adulthood reveling in the brute force of Shaq. In recent years, the fluidity and precision of Pau Gasol and the youthful power and growing polish of Andrew Bynum have given me much joy. I’ll always have a special place in my heart and root for the behemoths of this game.

So today, I’m saddened that the league has lost one of its giants to retirement. Yao Ming will no longer be a member of the league that we all love so much, calling it a career today. The lower leg injuries proved to be too much to overcome.

Though he never wore a Laker jersey, Yao was one of my favorite players. His determination and competitiveness were traits that I admired. I’ll never forget him dragging his leg up and down the floor in the 2009 playoffs against the Lakers. Not wanting to exit a game that meant so much to him and his mates, he persevered through what turned out to be a broken foot, trying to will and skill his team to a needed win. His Rockets ended up losing that series to our Lakers, but my ongoing respect for him was set in stone that night.

His skill level was off the charts. Men his size weren’t supposed to have such touch. Yao could make spot up twenty footers look like pop-a-shots. His jump hook from either block was nearly impossible to defend. He shot turn around jumpers over both shoulders, many dropping through the hoop from that high release point that defenders could only look up to. And his passing was simply superb. He delivered all variety of dimes to his teammates, dropping lead bounce passes to baseline cutters or hook passes to ‘mates diving down the middle of the paint.

Defensively he had his weaknesses in hedging and recovering on pick and rolls and he suffered guarding the quicker face up five men on the schedule that would isolate and try to drive by him. But he protected the rim well, contesting all comers even if it meant being on the wrong side of a poster. What I appreciated most about his defense was that he tried hard to be a great defender even though he was clearly limited by his foot speed and stamina.

But what Yao will always be remembered for was his sheer enormity. Nearly every coach I’ve ever had has said that “you can’t teach size.” Phil Jackson once said that “there are only so many dinosaurs”, and once claimed that if he could have his pick of any player to start a team with in the league, he’d choose Dwight Howard. The true big men that have skill and can play the pivot are a rarity, something that the greatest professional coach ever understood clearly.

Even though we’ve seen this coming for a couple of years, it doesn’t make this any less of a sad day for the true hoop heads around the world. Yao was one of a kind and blessed the league with skill, heart, and class both on and off the court. I’ll miss him and his game and wish him nothing but the best in his post basketball life.

Coming into this off-season, the Lakers are in an interesting place as a franchise. Without making a single move, they’re still contenders to win the title, possessing top shelf talent at multiple positions and all with championship experience. That said, their dismissal from the playoffs has led to questions about the viability of this roster and the critique that improvements need to be made for them to not only compete next year, but for years to come.

Improvement of this kind can normally happen three ways. The Lakers could either make a trade for (or sign in free agency) younger players that still possess a high enough talent level that the roster is still competitive or they can hope that some of the younger players on their roster take a step forward in their development to go from non-contributors to viable rotation players. With the lockout in full effect, option one is off the table. There will be no trades or free agent signing period without a collective bargaining agreement in place and, furthermore, once a deal is in place who knows how restrictive the rules will be for the Lakers to actually improve their roster through these avenues.

That leaves us with option two and the improvement of young players on the roster. Currently, the Lakers have 4 players – all of them 2nd round picks – that we’re all hopeful could become contributors down the line. Both Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter were on the roster last season and showed varying degrees of effectiveness in the limited minutes they earned. Both obviously have strides to make as players, but both also flashed enough skill to prove that they belong in the league. And then, of course, there are the two 2nd round picks from this past draft. While I’m not looking for them to earn many minutes next season, both Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock are intriguing prospects that bring specific skill sets that are needed additions on the current roster.

For these 4 players, the summer is normally the time that we get to see, first hand, how their development is coming. And with that, get our first hints at whether or not they are improving at a rate that equates to them potentially contributing next season.

Only, with the lockout, that chance is now gone. Over at Land O’ Lakers, the Kamentzky brothers spoke with Andrew Goudelock and he explained how the lockout affects him:

It’s tough for me because I don’t get to be in a summer league, and be able to show myself, and showcase my talents during the summer session. But it’s my job to stay in shape, keep playing, and get ready for when it’s over.

For Ebanks and Caracter this lack of summer showcasing could hurt them even more. They both already have a season under their belt and both have been tasked with coming into this next season with improved games. In exit interviews, Ebanks was asked to work on his ball handling and jump shot in order to potentially earn minutes at shooting guard. Meanwhile, Caracter must prove that the commitments he made to improving his body are sustained and that he can continue to grow as a defender and rebounder at this level. Neither player has a guaranteed contract for next season and now neither has the ability to show the Lakers that they’ve taken the steps forward that they’ve been asked to take.

The fact is, all of these players have holes in their games but don’t have an opportunity to show the Lakers that those weaknesses are getting smaller. And that means that the Lakers have no clue if the young players they have in their pipeline are potential contributors or even worth a roster spot. And or an aging team that could use an influx of youth, that’s a problem.

Granted, the Lakers can still win with their veteran laden roster doing most of the heavy lifting. But, a touch of youth and athleticism wouldn’t hurt. And with the lockout taking away these players’ chances to show that they could be a part of that solution, both the players and the organization suffers.

So, while we sit back and evaluate the lockout from the perspective of the union and the owners, the terms of the new CBA, and if there will be an agreement before the season starts, it’s also good to remember that the time we’re losing now is also important. This time of the year is when young players prove themselves, but this year, the question of whether or not they’re improving will remain unanswered.

Ken Berger of CBS Sports – who has been covering the CBA negotiations as well as anyone - broke the news with a simple tweet not too long ago:

BREAKING: Owners have informed players they are locking out.

So here we are. The players union and owners haven’t found a middle ground on a labor agreement and we all suffer for it (and not only us, but a laundry list of employees from every team and arena as well as those in other professions whose positions are influenced by the operation of a multi-billion dollar sports league). And while we all saw this coming, it doesn’t make it any less a frustrating and sad day for basketball fans.

If you’d like some good reading on the issues, as well as proposals, here you go:

We’ll have much more on the lockout and the league in general as we learn more. But for now, treat this as your official lock out thread.