Monday, May 24, 2010

Im Old, Remember?

In 1996, I was nine years old, going on ten, and enjoying the summer before starting my fifth grade school year. In the summer of 1996, Kobe Bryant was 17 years old poised to be drafted 13th overall in the NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets, and then traded to the LA Lakers for Vlade Divac. Kobe and I were leading completely different paths in life, I was studying math, science and geography, while Kobe was studying tape of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. While I was selling lemonade on the corner and washing the neighbors cars, Kobe was negotiating a multi-million dollar contract with the Lakers and another one with Adidas. But what neither of us realized was Kobe would fuel my life long love and obsession with the game of basketball, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

I always have and always will defend Kobe Bryant, through thick and thin. When Del Harris gave Kobe Bryant only 15.5 minutes per game his rookie season, I was calling for his head (yes, I was a nine-year-old calling for someone's head). When Kobe shot the three air balls against Utah in the 1996 playoffs, I said at least he had the "you know what's" to take those shots. When Shaq blamed Kobe, I blamed Shaq. When the incident in Colorado took place, I couldn't and wouldn't believe it. When Kobe publicly criticized Andrew Bynum and asked for a trade, I hoped and prayed Jerry Buss would ship Bynum out. When people would say Kobe can't win without Shaq, i would argue that Jordan didnt win without Pippen. When absolutely everybody was saying that Kobe was too old to take a team on his back and will them to victory, I laughed and thought to myself, "just wait".

The one comment that really irked me was when people were saying that Kobe Bryant was too old. Too Old? Kobe Bryant is one of the hardest working players the NBA has ever seen. He is in fantastic condition and is only 31 years old. Then I remembered just how old 31 years can be in professional sports, so I decided that I would do some research to see just how OLD Kobe Bryant really is.

Years in the NBA: 14 and counting
Total Games Played (Including All-Star, Olympic, and Playoffs): 1,231
Total Minutes Played: 46,554
Total Miles Traveled:
Regular season (road games, too and from): about 46,795,560
Playoffs (road games, too and from): about 113,967
Olympics (Beijing and back): 12,196
That brings Kobe to a total of around 46,921,723 total miles traveled throughout his basketball career. And he's not done yet.

Looking back at those numbers, I can't imagine how number 24 is still playing at such a high level. If it were me, my right arm, and both of my legs would no longer be attached to my body. It really is a true testament to how tough Kobe Bryant is both mentally and physically. You can doubt whoever and whatever you want, but be careful when you doubt the Black Mamba, because he is always poised to strike.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Preview and Prediction: Western Conference Finals

2010 Western Conference Finals: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns

There couldn't be a more interesting match up than the Lakers and Suns. They're contrasting styles of play set the table for what most to believe will be a hard fought series. Let's take a look at how they got here and they're styles of play.

Phoenix Suns:

In the first round, the Suns faced an undermanned Portland team and defeated them in six games. Phoenix then moved onto conference semi's and took on the Spurs and quickly dispersed of them in an impressive four game sweep.

When former coach Mike D'antoni and Steve Nash arrived in Phoenix years ago, the look and style of play for that franchise can be described as, like the book, seven seconds or less. That book gives an in depth analysis of how the Suns offense is based around pushing the ball down the opponents throat, and getting a good shot up in seven seconds or less. With Mike D'antoni now on the opposite coast coaching the Knicks, Steve Nash and new coach Alvin Gentry have worked together to keep that system alive and well in the valley of the sun.

A lot of NBA offensive systems are based on the simple pick and roll, but no offense relies and thrives off of the "basic" pick and roll as much as the Suns does. Many compare guarding Steve Nash to being that little ball in a pinball machine, you are in constant motion, getting screened, hit and when you think you're finally free, another Suns player blindsides you with yet another screen.

Steve Nash has deceptive speed, fantastic ball handling skills, great vision, and the uncanny ability to squeeze bullet passes into the tightest of spots, oh, and he is one of the best three point and free throw shooters ever to graze the hardwood. The combination of those qualities make him one of the best point guards in basketball today, and one of the best to ever play.

Most people, myself included, didn't expect Amar'e Stoudemire to be with the Suns at this point in the season. Phoenix aggressively shopped Amar'e prior to this years trade deadline, but weren't enamored with any of the offers they received and decided it would be best to take their chances resigning him in free agency, it turned out to be a great decision. Since the All-Star break, Stoudemire has been one of the best players in the league with averages of 27 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 1.4 blocks per game.

Amar'e provides the perfect compliment to Nash in the pick and roll game, he has great footwork and hands and he finishes strong at the rim. What really sets Stoudemire apart from other big men is his ability to hit the jump shot from 13 to 18 feet, if an opposing team takes away the roll, Amar'e will simply pop out and hit the mid range jumper.

A big part of the Suns game is hitting shots from behind the arc, and they rely on a multitude of different players to spread the floor, and knock one in from deep. The acquisition of Jason Richardson from the Bobcats in 2008 showed that new GM Steve Kerr was dedicated to making the Suns a better, more athletic team. What concerned most Suns fans, though, was that Richardson was more of a slasher than a floor spreading three point threat like Raja Bell and Boris Diaw, the two players who were swapped for J-Rich. Soon enough, the Phoenix faith full would come to see that Richardson had the ability to be a viable deep ball threat, and he has tuned up his shot in this years playoffs. Richardson has fired 66 three point shots and has connected on 34 of them, that is 51.5% from three point range for the playoffs.

The Suns also deploy very solid long range bombers from their bench in Channing Frye, Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa. Many believe that Phoenix has one of the deepest, most talented, and toughest benches in the NBA; with gritty players such as Lou Amundson, Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic coming in and playing tough minutes. The Suns rely very heavily on their bench play to bring even more energy than the starters night in and night out. When the Phoenix bench is clicking on all cylinders they are a tough squad to beat.

The effectiveness of the Suns offense is definitely not in question, but their dedication to playing defense is. In remembering past Suns teams, one would notice that they had defensive liabilities all over the floor. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire always seemed disinterested in playing any sort of defense, and former coach Mike D'antoni never seemed to want them to try and stop the opponent. They would stick Raja Bell on the opposing teams best player in hope that he could shut down whoever it was, allowing the team to get out in transition.

This year's Suns team is different, though, it seems as if Alvin Gentry has made it clear that defense is something that the team had to focus on in order to win. They have added guys such as Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Lou Amundson and Robin Lopez, who go out and make a concerted effort on the defensive end each night, and it looks like it has rubbed off on Nash and Stoudemire as well. Throughout the playoffs, the Suns have held their opponents to 96 points per game, which never would have happened with past Phoenix squads.

For the Suns to win this series they must be efficient in transition, force the Lakers to take contested outside shots, and knock down the three at a 45% clip for the series.

Los Angeles Lakers:

In the first round, the Lakers struggled mightily with the younger more athletic Thunder, but still took the series in six games. In that series, Durant, Westbrook and Co. made the lakers look old and slow and sent Lakerland into crisis mode. In the second round, L.A. dismantled the Jazz in an easy four game sweep that brought promise and stability back into the heart and mind of the alarmed Laker faith full.

The defending champions came into this season as the run away favorites to win their second NBA championship in as many years. With the signing of free agent Ron Artest (in a virtual swap for Trevor Ariza) any and all people who follow the Association felt as if the Lakers would coast through the regular season and stomp on opponents on their way to another title, but that proved to be wishful thinking. The Lakeshow were hit with the injury bug throughout the entire season: Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum each missed 17 games, and Kobe Bryant battled multiple injuries all season and ended up missing nine games. The injuries proved to be a hindrance for the Lakers to mesh as a unit.

We heard all of the talk after the Lakers series against the Thunder about how Kobe was too old to will his team to victory, but Kobe quickly quieted those critics with two monster games both offensively and defensively to close out the Thunder. I agree, to some extent, about Kobe not being able to score 40 points every night against quality opponents, but what he needs to realize is he doesn't need to have a huge offensive game for his team to win, the Lakers have too many weapons.

The Lakers style could not be more different than that of the Suns. The Lakers look to slow things down, and run a slow, methodical triangle offense in a half court set. When run properly, the triangle offense is what I like to consider "beauty on the court". Tex Winter created the triangle offense as a series of reactionary movements and cuts based on what the defense is giving you. When a team has a roster full of players with high basketball IQ's, such as the Lakers, it is nearly impossible to stop the triangle offense if it is being run properly. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they haven't been doing that, and that can be attributed to new comer Ron Artest's inability to understand the inner workings of the offense. If one is to watch the game, and watch Artest especially, they will see how his lack of understanding of the offense causes for a lot of hesitation, which allows the defense to re-react to which ever cut, fade or pass that Artest should make.

Throughout he first two rounds of this years playoffs, every NBA analyst, talk show host, TV personality and anyone involved in sports has noted that nobody can compete with the Lakers big men. Their size and length in the paint is a huge advantage that sometimes is forgotten about, and that's when they get in trouble. Pau Gasol is 7'0, Andrew Bynum is 7'1, and Lamar Odom is 6'11 no other team in the league can attest to having a bigger more talented front line than what the Lakers can deploy every night. One of the Lakers big men, Andrew Bynum, has been a non-factor in this years postseason, and that is due to the slight tear in his meniscus on his right knee. Bynum is averaging 10 ppg, 9 rpg and 2 blocks per game in the playoffs, which are not terrible numbers, but Bynum has had absolutely no impact in 8 of the 10 playoff games.

The Lakers are in desperate need of someone other than guys named Kobe And Pau to show up and make an impact. That means, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum really need to relish the rest they have this week, and come out on Monday with rejuvenated focus and energy. If those three guys are healthy and making an impact on any facet of the game, whether it be offensively, defensively or on the boards, the Lakers are nearly impossible to beat.

In order for the Lakers to win this series they must limit transition, that means get to Steve Nash defensively early and often, they need to pound the ball on the inside and attempt to get the Phoenix bigs in foul trouble, and lastly, the Lakers need to control the glass both defensively and offensively, that will help limit transition opportunities for the Suns.

Position by Position Breakdown:

Point Guards: Steve Nash vs. Derek Fisher
This is an obvious choice, Steve Nash is one of the best point guards to ever play the game, and he is having one of the best seasons of his career. Don't be surprised if the series is decided by Derek Fisher, his knack for hitting big shots at key times is a quality that only few have been lucky enough to have.

Shooting Guards: Jason Richardson vs. Kobe Bryant
As well as J- Rich has been shooting the ball, Kobe Bryant is the choice here. The Black Mamba silenced all of his critics in the dominating sweep of the Jazz, and he likes to save his best games for Phoenix. Look for Kobe to come out aggressive on offense and also look for him to take chances on defense.

Small Forwards: Grant Hill vs. Ron Artest
This is a tough one. Artest has been playing terrible on offense, but defensively, nobody is as willing as Ron to take on the biggest of challenges. Grant Hill, on the other hand, has been playing effectively on both ends of the court and fits in perfectly with the Suns system. As hard as this one is, I am gonna have to go with Artest, solely on the fact that the Lakers don't rely on him as much offensively as Phoenix does on Hill, which will free up Ron to be more focused on defense.

Power Forwards: Amar'e Stoudemire vs. Pau Gasol
Gasol's ability to create his own shot in the post, use a plethora of post moves and step out and hit a jumper up to 17 feet makes him a nightmare to guard. Pau has also made an effort to play harder on defense and has become one of the best rebounders in the NBA because of it. Stoudemire is very gifted offensively in the pick and roll, but his inability to establish himself on the block, and his lack of effort on the defensive end is enough to give the nod to Gasol in the battle of the power forwards.

Centers: Jarron Collins/Robin Lopez vs. Andrew Bynum
We don't know if Lopez will play yet, but even if he does, the Suns don't rely on the center position for any kind of offensive production. The Suns centers are there for screens and rebounding, that's it. The Lakers do rely on Andrew Bynum to produce offensively, defensively and on the boards. when Bynum is healthy and engaged in the game, he is one of the best centers in the league. I think a weeks worth of rest will give Bynum enough time to recuperate and come out with energy to make an impact. This battle goes to Bynum.

X-Factors: Suns Bench vs. Lamar Odom
Like I said earlier in the post, the Suns bench is very strong, and Phoenix relies on those guys to bring energy, toughness and three point shooting on a nightly basis. The Suns bench is very dangerous and can change the make up of a game. Lamar Odom might be one of the most frustrating players in the eyes of basketball purists. He has been blessed with great size, speed and versatility. His ability to control the boards and lead the fast break is unmatched by anyone his size. Odom has been in a funk so far this postseason, Averaging only 8 points and 8 rebounds per game. I believe that Lamar will bring his game for this series and the Suns young bench may be a but overwhelmed with the magnitude of this series, this battle goes to The Candy Man.

Prediction: Lakers in Six

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Number One Pick: A Gift, or a Recipe for Disaster (continued)

In my last post I covered which first overall picks in the NFL draft ended up not producing like a number one pick should. For this post I am going to shift my focus to the NBA.

Along with the NFL, the NBA draft is a huge primetime production. There are hundreds of draft experts and websites dedicated to non stop coverage of June's NBA draft. These people log countless hours studying the draft eligible players, trying to determine where they fit on the draft board, and attempting to speculate on which NBA franchise will draft them.

As I studied past drafts and the stats of the top picks in those drafts, there was a theme that was very interesting to me. In all of the drafts prior to 1984, the number one overall pick in each of those drafts ended up having a good career with good production across the board. It makes me wonder what changed within NBA franchises to cause them to make some very questionable picks. Is it that they are willing to take a chance on an unproven, raw prospect in the hopes that he may be the next superstar? Or maybe the talent pool to pick from has dried up to the point where all one would need to do is put on a blindfold and point in the direction of a player, and the person closest to their finger is the pick. It seems that both of the scenario's I mentioned are very possible with some of the picks that have been made over the last two decades.

Here are my worst Number one overall NBA draft picks:
(starting from 1984 to the present)

1. Sam Bowie, 1984 - Trailblazers
Bowie was not a number one overall pick, but the rammifications of this pick were so monumental I just had to mention it. The only reason Sam Bowie is on this list is because a guy synonymous with the number 23 and the word greatness was taken right behind him. Everyone always wonders what Portland was thinking when they took Bowie over Jordan in '84, and I will tell you why. First of all, Portland was a good team to end the '83 season and received that number two pick from a previous trade with Indiana, so they weren't looking for a franchise changer like Chicago was; they had needs, and they were looking to fill them. Portland also had very good guard play at both positions with Terry Dehere at the point and Clyde Drexler at the two, so at that time, they felt drafting Jordan would crowd their back court and cause a rift among the guards.
Let's do a little background on Sam Bowie. He was a 7-1, 240lb. center at the University of Kentucky, in his three years in college, Bowie averaged 13.4 ppg, 9 rpg, and 1.5 blocks per game. He was an extremely good outside shooter for his size, he was an underrated passer, and he had a very high basketball IQ.
The Trailblazers had a desperate need for a big man. They had former number one overall pick Mychal Thompson on the inside, but he lacked a physicalness in the paint that Portland so desperately needed. When draft time came around, the Blazers and everyone knew that Houston was going to draft Olajuwon, so, Portlands hierarchy had a choice to make, take Bowie a very gifted and multifaceted big man, or take Jordan an athletic and dynamic guard with questionable outside shooting. Portland chose Bowie and the rest is history.

2. Joe Smith, 1995 - Golden State Warriors
Having only played two years of college basketball and the Universtiy of Maryland and being named the NCAA Player of the Year after his sophomore year, Joe Smith was tagged as the next big thing. The Golden State Warriors had the first pick in the 1995 NBA draft, and they used it to select the highly touted Smith. In his first four years as an NBA player, Smith was an above average performer with averages of around 16 ppg, 7 rpg and just over a block per game. To most people, Joe Smith was underachieving, but for a player his size, 6-10 225 lbs, he was more of a perimeter big than one who could go in the post and bang with the seven footers.
Smith was traded to the 76ers mid way through the 1997-98 season, and it seemed to ruin his confidence, from that point on, Smith's production greatly declined. For a player who showed so much upside in the beginning of his career, to finishing his career with averages of 11 ppg and 6.5 rpg in 13 different stops, Joe Smith went from number one overall pick, to draft bust journeyman.

3. Michael Olowokandi, 1998 - LA Clippers
Leave it to the Clippers to make, in my opinion, the worst pick in NBA draft history. Olowokandi went to the Universtiy of the Pacific, a college not known for it's competitive sports. The Kandi Man only played 77 games in college, averaging 13.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg against below average competition. During his senior year, Olowokandi averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds, those stats combined with his size (7' 260lbs) and good footwork around the basket caught the eye of the Clippers.
What makes this pick even worse is the quality of players taken after Olowokandi in the 98 draft, here is a list: Mike Bibby, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis. The Kandi Man's best season was in 2002-03 when he averaged 12 points and 9 rebounds per game, not exactly what one would expect from the top pick in the draft. After the best season of his career, Olowokandi hit the free agent market, and Minnesota picked him up for a healthy 5.5 million per season. The Timberwolves envisioned the Kandi Man teaming alongside KG to form a twin towers tandem in the paint, that never worked out. Olowokandi was then traded by the Wolves to the Celtics and eventually played his way right out of the NBA. When it was all said and done, this draft bust averaged 8.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg for his dismal career.

4. Kwame Brown, 2001 - Washington Wizards
In Michael Jordans first draft as a partial owner of his own basketball team, he made a horrific pick. Drafting a player directly from high school is always a gamble, and drafting one with questionable work ethic, no post or mid range game, and tiny hands is definitely a recipe for disaster. Kwame Brown has tremendous size and strength, at 6-11 270lbs., Brown should have been a force in the paint, but that didn't work out.
The pressure of being Michael Jordan's first draft pick might have doomed Kwame's career and development. He came into a terrible Washington Wizards team and was expected to take them on his back and turn them into something they would never be. When the Wizards only played Brown in 57 games at 14.1 minutes per game in his rookie year, everyone knew that he wasn't what we thought he was. Kwame Brown's career went from potential big man superstar to journeyman draft bust with one flick of MJ's magical wand. You know your career is in shambles when your greatest accomplishment is being traded to Memphis for Pau Gasol, helping to create a new Laker dynasty. Kwame's career numbers are as follows: 6.7 ppg on just 48% from the field, 5.4 rpg and about a half a block per game.

5. Darko Milicic, 2003 - Detroit Pistons
Like Sam Bowie, Darko was a number two pick, but this pick ended up being so terrible that I felt inclined to mention it. Milicic is a 7 footer out of Yugoslavia. As a 17 year old, Darko was playing in the top tier Euroleague and put on some of his best performances in the presence of NBA scouts. The scouts would rave about his shooting, passing, ball handling and NBA style game. He was drawing comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, Darko even compared himself to Kevin Garnett in an interview with Chad Ford back in January of 2003(
In the 2003 NBA draft, the Cavs selected Lebron James with the top overall pick, the Pistons then selected Milicic number two overall, despite the fact that Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade were available. The Pistons saw something they liked in Milicic, but what they saw must have been lost on one of his international flights. In his first three years in Detroit, Darko hardly shed his warmups. Milicic played in only 96 games those three years and averaged about 5.8 minutes per game averaging only 1.6 ppg and 1.2 rpg. So what happened to Darko Milicic? He lost all the confidence he showed in that Chad Ford Interview. There is no doubt that Darko has the skills to be a really good basketball player, but the Pistons drained whatever confidence he had left right into the sewer outside the Palace at Auburn Hills, and now Darko is there for some team to take a chance on, we'll see if Minnesota gives him a legitimate shot.

6. Greg Oden, 2007 - Portland Trailblazers
Oden's short career has been derailed by injuries, so I cant go too in depth as to why he is a draft bust. The Blazers knew he struggled throughout his life with chronic knee problems, but based on his size, length and hype, Portland took a chance on him, passing on the sure thing in Kevin Durant. If Oden can come back healthy and have a productive career, he will be wiped right off of this list.

7. Blake Griffin, 2009 - LA Clippers
Griffin is on this list because the Clippers drafted him, and we all known the Clippers are the worst drafting franchise in major sports history. Griffin was a monster in his two seasons at Oklahoma and was easily the best player in the 2009 draft class, but unfortunately for him, the Clippers won the lottery. As soon as Griffin stepped foot on anything Clipper related, he hurt his knee and was out for his entire rookie season. Let's hope and pray the Clipper Curse does not put a hex on Blake's career, so, Donald Sterling if you are listening, please trade Blake Griffin so we can watch him evolve into an NBA star.