Archive for the ‘In Memoriam’ Category

Kobe Bryant is Fading Away and Other Aging NBA Stars

October 13, 2014

I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.

There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.

I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.

Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.

For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.

I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.

The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.

The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.

Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.

Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.

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Allen Iverson – The Underrated MVP?

August 27, 2013

We talkin’ ‘bout retirement? Retirement? Not the game. Not playing the game. We talkin’ ‘bout retirement.

Well no thanks. I don’t want to talk about Iverson officially retiring three years after the league decided to boycott him. I don’t want to talk about the Slam Magazine cover shoot or the racially charged incident in a bowling alley that made (unfairly) a good kid into an infamous young man. I don’t want to talk about A.I.’s impact on sports culture, cornrows, compression sleeves, baggy shorts, jewelry, or the NBA’s ridiculous dress code. I don’t even want to talk about practice.

Let’s talk about Allen Iverson, the shortest player ever to lead the league in scoring and / or win league MVP. I’m pretty sure. How short was Tiny? Or Cousy? Do I care? Do you? Nah. You don’t.

First thing’s first. Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan were better than Iverson the year he won his MVP award. No doubt. No debate. It is what it is. And guess what? That happens all the time. In the 1970s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best player every year without question. He won the MVP “only” half the time. From 1988-1998 Michael Jordan was the best player every year he actually played. He won half the time. Since about 2008, LeBron James has been the best player every year. He has won 2/3rds of the time.

The best player does not always win the MVP. Sometimes the award goes to the player on a championship level team who has paid his dues over the years on non-contenders and deserves the recognition in the eyes of the voters (see Karl Malone). Sometimes it goes to the best player on the winningest team (see Charles Barkley). Sometimes it goes to the player on a contending team that the voters think is least replaceable, like Steve Nash in 2005 & 2006 or Derrick Rose in 2011.

Allen Iverson falls into this last category and is a pretty good match for Rose. They both played on defensively dominant, offensively challenged squads that led the East in wins. They both played an inefficient but highly productive brand of slashing, shoot-first lead guard basketball, exploiting quickness, explosiveness, and the offensive rebounding talent of their teammates to draw multiple defenders at the rim and turn bad shots into good possessions. Were either of them “worthy” MVP winners? Enough voters thought so to award them the title. In MVP voting, that’s all that counts.

The advanced statistics movement has made Iverson something of a whipping boy. Most of the ire for shooting lots of tough shots at a low True Shooting percentage has ironically been aimed at Kobe Bryant, who is a significantly better shooter, but Allen has taken his share of lumps too. Frankly, it’s a hard point to debate. Iverson is not a good shooter by NBA standards. He is a “volume scorer,” which has become a denigrating term over the years.

However, I think three crucial points fall in A.I.’s favor:

  1. Iverson’s super high usage kept the ball out of the hands of such scoring albatrosses as Eric Snow, George Lynch, and Theo Ratliff. Iverson was the only player on that 2001 76ers Finals team to play more than 1000 minutes and produce an offensive rating over 105. Some metrics like PER take usage into account and rate Iverson pretty highly. Others such as win share do not and rate him very low for his reputation. In any case it’s tough to deny that usage has its benefits even when the shooter is not the most efficient scorer.
  2. The 2005 change to the hand-check rule had a huge impact on players like Iverson. He had his best statistical season at age 30 in 2006. That is very odd for an undersized, ball-dominant guard (by contrast Isiah Thomas’s best statistical season came at age 23, and Kevin Johnson’s came at age 24). In the 2005-06 season, Iverson had his highest career PER (25.9) averaged 33 points (while taking a career-best 11.5 free throws) and 7.4 assists and shot his second highest TS% 54.3, not great but significantly better than his career average of 51.8 (the only season he shot better was 2008, age 32, while playing with Carmelo Anthony in Denver – but his usage dropped 9 points). Similarly Kobe, Wade, and LeBron made leaps in the 2006 season, as did other ball-dominant scoring wings whose efficiency improved with the enforcement of the perimeter touch foul. I have to believe that if he had been playing under this rule system his entire career, then Iverson’s peak would have come earlier and been more impressive.
  3. There is value in aggressiveness for the sake of aggressiveness in the NBA, and Allen Iverson was one of the most relentlessly aggressive players in the history of the game. He put pressure on the defense ALL the time. Think of Russell Westbrook. Now imagine there’s no Kevin Durant around to take the ball out of his hands. Now imagine he plays 43 minutes per game. Now consider the effect on a defense over time. He wears you out with simple aggression. That’s Iverson. In fact Iverson is the model for Westbrook and players like him. In the same way that you could say that Kobe, Wade, and LeBron would all be different players without the example of Michael Jordan to model their game on, I have every confidence that Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and every other hyper-aggressive, ball-dominant scoring point guard would be different players without the example set by A.I.

On the plus side of the statistical equation, Iverson led the league in scoring 4 times (and came in second one year with a 33 ppg average because Bryant went bonkers and averaged 35), minutes 7 times, steals 3 times, and usage 5 times. Only 2 players have ever averaged 33+ points and 7+ assists in the same seasons, Iverson and Tiny Archibald. Only 7 players have ever averaged 30+ points and 7+ assists for a season: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Tiny Archibald, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Allen Iverson.

Iverson is also one of only four players ever to average 30+% usage, 30+% assist rate, and under 11% turnover rate in the same season. The other players on the list are Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James. Not bad. A combined 60% usage and assist rate indicates, if nothing else, that a player has the ball A LOT, and to control so many possessions with only 11% turnover rate is outstanding possession maintenance.

And, and, and there’s something to be said for any player who can ALWAYS get a shot off. I know we’ve been led to despise conscienceless chuckers, but some days they do get hot. It’s unpredictable. You wouldn’t necessarily want to try to build a champion around it. But when a guy like A.I. starts hitting those contorted, herky-jerk pull-ups and floaters, it’s like the crane kick in Karate Kid. No can defend. Watch game 1 of the 2001 Finals. Allen Iverson single-handedly takes an undefeated post-season away from the most dominant playoff team of all time (with Shaq and Kobe both playing out of their minds). Why? Because you can’t keep him from taking shots, bad shots maybe, but shots. When he’s hitting him, there’s no scheme or individual who ever had any real success slowing him down. Or watch the All-Star game when he and Marbury led a titanic 4th quarter comeback to defeat a much more dominant West squad. Nobody but nobody could stay in front of him. And the West had Kobe and Jason Kidd and the Glove Gary Payton to throw at him (1 Defensive Player of the Year and about 318 All-Defensive teams between those three).

More than anything what I’ll remember about A.I. is what happened on those nights when he had it going, and no one and nothing could slow him down. He’d get this sort of pained, locked-in expression on his face, like he couldn’t get the ball back fast enough to break down the next defender and get up the next ridiculous shot. He’d get up on his man and start pressuring the ball and break out ahead of the defense in transition every time an opposing guard took a jump shot. In the half court he’d set up on the left wing and get a flow with the ball. Nobody before or since has used the dribble as a weapon the way A.I. did. He would be at the left elbow extended, feinting a drive, dipping the shoulders, rocking this way and that, lulling the defender, and then BANG he’s streaking into the lane driving to his right at breakneck speed, and his defender lunges backward, and the help defense shifts to paint, and then PSYCHE it’s a crossover, he’s really going left for a that floating pull up j at the elbow. He had the ball on a string and the defense on roller skates, and it was a joy and a privilege to watch him do his thing.

Great Article on Reggie Lewis

August 12, 2013

There’s an article you’ve got to read over on ESPN right now. Jackie McMullan wrote this piece on Reggie Lewis that really made me smile.

From an interview she had about Reggie with Michael Jordan:

“He was a tough matchup,” Jordan said. “He had those long arms that really bothered me.

“I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanor, but he didn’t back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness.

“He shocked me a little bit.”

And then there’s this surprising statistical factoid:

By the time he died, he was one of six players who, from 1988-93, posted at least 7,500 points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,000 assists and 500 steals. The other five — Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin — are all Hall of Famers.

For me personally, Reggie Lewis, a star guard for the Celtics from 1988-93 who tragically passed away prior to the start of the 1993-94 season at the age of 27, remains one of my all-time favorite players. He was 6′ 7″ with crazy long arms (think Tracy McGrady) and a tremendous first step. On top of that, he could shoot it from all over, and his J was particularly deadly along the baseline with an old-school pull-up from 15 to 20 feet out. He was a top-notch defender as well, leveraging his length to really space opponents for the drive but still contest shots effectively (think Kevin Durant). I was of course a huge Bulls fan because of MJ, but I always felt like Reggie belonged in the conversation with the other star wing players in the league like Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, and Dominique Wilkins.

Rise of the Brooklyn Celtics

June 28, 2013

Six years ago at the NBA draft, Celtics fans watched the proceedings with glassy eyed stares as anticipated franchise saviors Greg Oden and Kevin Durant went 1 and 2, and the fruits of the teams’ obvious tanking turned out to be Jeff Green. But wait! It was all a bait and switch. Jeff Green was headed to the rebuilding Seattle Supersonics (remember them?) in exchange for Ray Allen, yes THE Ray Allen with the second most made threes in the NBA history (at the time). Why make that move in Boston where an extra sharpshooter wouldn’t solve the team’s lack of identity and defensive punch? A miracle trade was in the works between GM Danny Ainge and his former teammate Kevin McHale in Minneapolis. Al Jefferson goes out, and Kevin Garnett, top 5 player in the league for half a decade Kevin Garnett, comes back.

Just like that Boston moves from league worst to a prohibitive favorite. Add in long time Jeff Van Gundy assist coach Tom Thibodeau, and a few veteran pieces like PJ Brown, Sam Cassell, and James Posey, to a starting unit of young Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, the two new stars, and stalwart team captain Paul Pierce, and the guys in green go onto win 66 games and their first title since 1986. They would make one more NBA Finals and a third conference finals ultimately falling short primarily due to injuries, but that first year was truly amazing.

Jump forward to the trade deadline 2011, when GM Ainge trades away defensive specialist center Perkins to take back Jeff Green, the same Jeff Green he originally traded in order to bring in Ray Allen. After a nearly miraculous playoff run in 2012 where the C’s were within one badly missed call in game 2 from upsetting the Heat and making it back to the Finals, Ray Allen would leave in free agency, taking a contract to play for Pat Riley in Miami for less money than the Celtics offered him to stay. The Ubuntu crew that Doc Rivers built into a champion was down to 3. Finally, just last week, Doc himself flew the coup to go try his whistle with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers.

And the final annihilation of the KG Celtics took place last night. Kevin, Pierce, and relative Celtic new-comer Jason Terry are headed to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for the horrible contracts of Gerald Wallace, Kris Kardashian-West-Odom-Humphris, and a pu-pu platter of future picks and role players.

Moment of silence please.

How do we absorb all this? I’m trapped in a glass cage of emotion. I can’t picture Pierce in Brooklyn black. It’s just WRONG. KG is my favorite player, but I’m less sentimental about him as a Celtics fan. The Kid cometh, and the Kid goeth away. But Pierce has been THE Celtic for at least a decade now. Going to be tough to see him suiting up for another franchise.

On the other hand, I’ve got the YES network, so I’ll be able to see all the Nets games, which ain’t bad. And how good is this Nets team now? It’s very hard to say. I like Deron better than Rondo because he has the ability to hit a jump shot. However, one of the great things that Rondo brought to the table for Pierce and KG was hustle. Rajon did a lot of the work for them at both ends with his quick hands, his activity, and his constant pressure on the defense creating openings. I’d like to see this team play a sort of Spurs style with Williams in the Parker role, Brook Lopez in the Duncan role, and the Joe Johnson and the two ex-Celts spacing the floor and moving to the open spots.

Defensively, I’m not sure what they’ll be. KG is still one the absolute elite defenders in the league, but he should be playing something less than 30 minutes per game at this point. Joe and Paul are good wing defenders, but neither in NBA athletic these days. Deron is solid but unspectacular, and Lopez is mediocre for a 7 footer.

Without knowing what sort of style Jason Kidd will want to install as his first experiment in head coaching, it’s tough to project. I’d expect him to be uptempo and point guard reliant, because that’s his style as a player, and that could work if he keeps a deep enough rotation. I’m going to be pulling for them this year. I’ve always been a fan of Deron, and KG and Pierce remain my two favorite players despite the fact that they’ll be wearing new jerseys next year.

Let’s all practice together: N-E-T-S Nets Nets Nets!

Tracy McGrady Retires from the NBA

October 11, 2012

There is a statistical benchmark in the NBA that few have ever met. This mark was hit 15 times by a total of seven players.

Wilt Chamberlain did it 3 times between 1962 and 1964. Then it was not accomplished again for 24 years. Michael Jordan was the next. He made it 4 times from 1988-1991. Then there’s another short gap before David Robinson managed it in 1994. Six years passed before Shaquille O’Neal broke the drought in 2000 and 2001. Then eight years went by before Dwyane Wade got one and LeBron James ran off three seasons at the benchmark. Only one player hit the mark between 2001 and 2009. Not Kobe Bryant. Not Tim Duncan. Not Dirk Nowitzki. Not Kevin Garnett.

Have you guessed yet?

The mark is a PER over 30. The player is, of course, Tracy McGrady.

As you probably know, PER is a one-number metric devised by professor John Hollinger of ESPN.com for the purpose of measuring a player’s positive contributions in a single season relative to the rest of the league. PER favors high usage, high efficiency scorers. At his peak in the early 2000s, TMac was as explosive and efficient a scorer as the league had to offer.

But wait, there’s more!

Tracy McGrady was not just a scoring machine. He was a highly versatile swingman and something of a point forward when necessary. He is one of only three players to ever record a season average of 9% Rebound Rate, 30% Assist Rate, and 30% Usage Rate. The other two are Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Good company. Like Jordan and James, McGrady had a play-style both well-rounded and highly aggressive. He was one of the few true swing players that I’ve ever seen, equally capable of defending the shooting guard or small forward, attacking off the dribble, shooting from deep, or posting up. Among all the players I’ve seen over the years, only TMac, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, and Grant Hill have had the combination of size, quickness, and skills to seamlessly transition between guard and forward at that high a level.

TMac made 7 All-NBA teams (2 times a first-teamer) and was seven times an all-star.

Despite putting up solid, sometimes spectacular, individual stats, McGrady’s teams never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. In Orlando his teams were hamstrung by injuries to their highest paid player, Grant Hill, leaving TMac to carry the offensive load. In Houston injuries to Yao Ming and McGrady himself held the team back – though while they were healthy and working together under Rick Adleman and Tom Thibodeau, they ran off the second longest regular season win-streak of all time.

Tracy’s NBA legacy may be one of missed opportunities and unreached potential, but he was a remarkable talent, and he left us with some impressive statistical achievements and amazing highlights.