Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kobe Bryant, Turkish Airlines and Armenians - Let's Talk It Out

As an Armenian-American NBA junkie and Lakers diehard that grew up in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant's new endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines, announced last week, was certainly food for thought. For those that are unaware, beginning in 1915, approximately 1.5 million Armenians were massacred in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

However, the modern-day Turkish government denies that genocide took place, arguing instead that both Armenian Christians and Muslim Turks died in eastern Turkey during World War I. Despite evidence to the contrary, the United States government does not formally recognize the 1915 massacres as genocide, in large part due to Turkey’s strategic location (located in between Russia, Europe and the Middle East) and its Incirlik airbase, which the U.S. has used in recent years in getting troops into and out of Afghanistan.

There’s the 30-second story, and I encourage you to learn more about the matter- here is a good start- but that’s not the focus of what I’m doing here.

Against this backdrop, it should come as little surprise that Kobe’s agreement has caused something of an uproar in Southern California, which is home to the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia. The deal has been denounced by Armenian groups, who are urging Kobe to reconsider his commitment.

In the days since I learned of Kobe’s new business partnership, I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about the matter, trying to assess the implications of the deal and determine a reasonable point of view with regard to all parties involved.

First off, let’s all agree on this: Kobe Bryant's done nothing "wrong." He signed a perfectly legal agreement with a foreign corporate entity that, to the best of my knowledge, does not engaged in any untoward business practices. It’s an airline, for all intents and purposes no different from Quantas, Lufthansa or Emirates Airline. That the success of the airline, now to some small extent aided by his image, will lead to greater tourism revenue for a country that refuses to acknowledge the atrocities committed by its predecessors, creates a bit of a moral dilemma. However, to go as far to say that the "Turkish Deal Will Make Kobe the Face of Oppression and Injustice," as some Armenian groups have done, is excessive and cynically opportunistic.

Here's the thing- it's not Kobe's fight. It's not his cause. That 600-700K Armenians live in greater L.A. is a coincidence. While it's now his hometown, Los Angeles is merely the city in which Kobe plies his trade. It's neither fair nor rational to expect him to take up the individual or cultural causes of the fan base. Ours is a country that’s not above doing business with nations whose present-day conduct would make most peoples’ skin crawl. Until we’re willing to hold our elected leaders- the most powerful people in our nation- to this type of standard, maybe we ought to back off of the athlete who’s agreed to shoot a couple of commercials for a company located in a country whose former government committed an atrocity 95 years ago.

With all of that said, it's a bit unfortunate that Kobe elected to get on board with Turkish Airlines- not because the company has done anything wrong, but because it lacks the awareness and savvy that have come to define his persona. There is a sizable community within his city- sure, he simply “plies his trade” there, but he’s done so for a decade and a half!- in which Kobe is at the very least an icon, if not a full-fledged deity. Given the sheer size of L.A.’s Armenian community and the group’s relative prominence in the city, along with Kobe’s hyper-awareness of his image, it’s disappointing and surprising that neither he nor his handlers foresaw the ripples that this deal would cause in his own back yard.

So, in the end, Kobe didn’t actually do anything wrong- he just showed an uncharacteristic, "Decision-esque" lack of awareness of, and consideration for, a considerable segment of his own local population.

Or did he?

Intentionally or not, Kobe’s brought attention to this matter and, by extension, the cause of those fighting to gain official recognition of the events of 1915. I can’t remember the last time that, in one fell swoop, millions of Americans were legitimately curious about the details surrounding Armenia’s issues with Turkey. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Because You Can't See This Too Many Times

It's silly to try and sum this thing up in words, so please, sit back, relax and let Kevin Harlan take you home.

Ride 'em cowboy!

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Better, Cheaper Fit for The Knicks Than Carmelo Anthony

According to the Charlotte Observer, a pair of NBA executives have confirmed that the Bobcats are gauging the trade value of everyone on the roster, including co-captains Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace.

At 9-16, and having lost four of their last six games- two of those by 30+- the Bobs’ season is clearly circling the drain. And this is not one of those teams that’s “better than their record would indicate”- particularly on offense. Only two teams are scoring fewer points per game, only five teams (the Clippers, Kings Nets, Cavs and Bucks murderers’ row) are less efficient offensively, and no team turns the ball over more frequently (16.3% of possessions) or gets more shots blocked (8.7% of FGA).

On top of all that, Larry Brown says he’s having to “beg them to play,” while the owner (Michael Jordan) is giving the team “loud and stern” lectures.

So, yeah, it may be time to shake things up… again.

Unfortunately for fans in the Queen City, the closest the Bobcats have come to the top of the NBA mountain is a four-game beating at the hands of the Orlando Magic last spring- and the starting point guard from that squad, Raymond Felton, now spends his evenings lighting up the Garden. What’s worse is that for all of their wheeling and dealing in last couple of years, the Bobs have done a pretty pathetic job of accumulating either young talent or cap flexibility. Rather than burn a few hundred words on it here, for a breakdown, check out my 2010-11 Bobcats’ season preview.

Which brings us to the seemingly imminent roster shakeup in Charlotte. The Bobs’ payroll for the 2010-11 season is $65.9M, with another $58.6M committed for next season. While these aren’t crazy numbers, the only teams for whom this model is sustainable are those with significant national TV and playoff revenue (and the Knicks). The Charlotte Bobcats are neither. Clearly something’s gotta give.

Cue the aforementioned New York Knicks.

With summer signees Amar’e Stoudemire and Felton quickly capturing the heart of Gotham, with the former even gathering some MVP buzz, the Knicks, rapidly becoming the darlings of NYC, are looking to add some juice to their resurgence. Their pursuit of Denver Nuggets’ SF Caremlo Anthony has been well publicized (to put it mildly), but one obstacle to any deal is Carmelo’s cap number ($17M), which the Knicks would have to match in any trade. The Knicks’ current roster is top-loaded, in terms of both salary (only three guys make over $4M, and two of them are Stoudemire and Felton) and talent (just five good players- Stoudemire, Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and second-round surprise Landry Fields), making it virtually impossible to assemble a package that a) matches in salaries, b) offers the Nuggets enough on-court talent to justify dealing a player of Carmelo’s quality and c) doesn’t totally gut the first feel-good Knicks’ roster in at least a decade.

Given this, and the Bobcats’ apparent intention to take their wares to market, a move to acquire Gerald Wallace makes far more sense for the Knicks than a win-at-all-costs pursuit of Carmelo. While Wallace is clearly not the scoring threat that Melo is- though he is fairly efficient, averaging 16.7 ppg on 12.8 FGA/game in an inefficient, slow-down offense- nor does he possess the same level of star power. However, he’s a former All-Star that, from the Knicks’ perspective, does bring plenty to the table:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

20 Questions From The Association - 6 Weeks in the Books

Is it just me, or…

Even though he plays west of the Mississippi for a sub-.500 team, shouldn't David Lee’s apparently career-threatening infection be a much bigger national story?

Will Joakim Noah's injury hurt the Chicago Bulls more than Carlos Boozer's did?

By some margin, is Joe Smith having the best week of any NBA player?

Given the altitude at which he play and the rough tactics used against him by Devin Harris, Andre Miller and most recently Elton Brand, should the NBA allow Blake Griffin to dish out one “message ass-kicking” without repercussions?

Are the Orlando Magic closer to being in the class of the Knicks or the Bucks than they are to that of the Lakers and the Celtics?

Should the Denver Nuggets make the deal that best suits them and tell Carmelo Anthony to deal with it?

Does watching Brandon Roy play as though he’s bolted to the floor make you profoundly sad as well?

Rather than blowing up their roster for Carmelo, should the Knicks look to build it up by bargain hunting for a pair of out-of-favor lottery talents in O.J. Mayo and Jason Thompson?

Is Manu Ginobili deserving of some serious MVP buzz?

Have the 2010-11 Sacramento Kings identified the road to respectability… and sprinted in the opposite direction?

Is the fact that there’s even a debate about whether or not Dennis Rodman is a Hall of Famer- 5 rings, 7 straight rebounding titles, 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards, 13.1 career rpg, 14.9+ rpg 6 times, 18+ twice, 15 rpg in 1997-98 at age 36, 377 15-rebound games, 156 20-rebound games, 33 25-rebound games and a 23.4% career Total Rebound Rate, all at 6’8”- patently absurd?

With his $17.3M salary set to come off the books this summer (there is an $18M team option that will certainly be declined), shouldn’t the Orlando Magic get more out of Vince Carter than 15 ppg and 4rpg?

Is it kinda crazy that the Clippers and the Timberwolves have each played just two division games?

Given the current form of the teams involved, is Monday night’s Mavericks-Heat matchup every bit as intriguing as Heat-Lakers on Christmas Day?

Is the idea that this summer J.J. Hickson was “untradeable” now beyond laughable?

Considering he’s averaged 15.7 ppg and shot 55% from the field in games in which he’s played at least 20 minutes- a whopping three of them- should Marcus Thornton have played more than 48 total minutes in the Hornets’ last eight games?

Has Deron Williams quietly opened up a considerable gap over Chris Paul in the “best point guard in the NBA” debate?

Based on the flashes he’s shown in his first nine games, by midseason, could Ed Davis give fans in Toronto a legitimate reason to be optimistic about the Raptors?

Considering how much the Miami Heat sacrificed at spots 4-12 on the roster, are they going to need more than 18-8 from the third option?

Could Rajon Rondo’s injury mark the first time in a decade that someone says, not ironically, “Man, I sure wish Stephon Marbury was here”?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Andrew Bogut's Back Injury - A Blessing In Disguise?

It should come as no surprise that the Milwaukee Bucks’ play has improved since their big man, Andrew Bogut, returned to the lineup. After missing five straight games between November 24 and December 1, Bogut’s been back on the floor for the Bucks’ last five. Since his return, the team has notched four wins (after a 6-12 start)- including an impressive 103-99 win at Dallas that snapped the Mavs’ 12-game winning streak. During this run, they have averaged better than 98 ppg, an improvement of more than 6 ppg over their league-worst average of 92.

Clearly Bogut’s return has been a catalyst for the improvement, but it’s not merely his presence on the floor that’s helped. Increases in his aggressiveness and activity in the paint at the offensive end suggest that he’s returned to maximum effectiveness. This is due to the fact that while he was resting his sore back, he had an opportunity to nurse right elbow as well, which was gruesomely injured late last season and had not looked 100% in the season’s opening weeks.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Spurs Are Now Elite Offensively- Have They Forsaken Defense?

One of the interesting and unexpected developments of the 2010-11 season has been the emergence of the Spurs as one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.

Following Wednesday night’s 111-94 win over the Golden State Warriors, they rank fourth in NBA, at 106.9 points per game, and are second in assists, with 24 per game. Racking up huge scoring numbers has not been the Spurs’ M.O. under Popovich, but with Duncan impact at the offensive end waning and the rest of team’s best players now all residing on the perimeter, a shift in styles was called for.

And has it ever taken!

Tony Parker (17 ppg, 7.1 apg) is still one of the NBA’s top-seven PGs, though his name is seldom mentioned as one of the best at his position. Manu Ginobili is healthy and having his best season, averaging 20.1 ppg (his first time over 20), 3.6 rpg and 5.1 apg (a career high), cementing himself in the NBA’s elite once again.

Also, heading up the supporting cast, Richard Jefferson (14.6 ppg, 4 rpg) has thrived this season. While he’s averaging just a bucket more per game and shooting almost the same percentage from the field (though his 3-point percentage is way up; 43% from ~32%), thanks to a summer spent working with Popovich, Jefferson’s now draining the Spurs’ patented “corner 3” and has transformed himself from an eight-figure albatross to an indispensable rotation player and glue guy.

So, yeah, the offense has been reinvented, and is clicking.

Meanwhile, at the defensive end, the Spurs are allowing 97.6 ppg, 11th in the NBA and the most in the Duncan era (for the second straight year), up from 96.3 a year ago. What's up? Is Gregg Popovich slowly morphing into Don Nelson? Are the Spurs the same elite team defensively that they’ve been for the past dozen or so years?

At first glance one would be tempted to say that they’re not, given the upticks in points against and the visible effects of age on Duncan’s game. However, it’s important to remember that playing at a faster pace creates more possessions per game, for both team, and that the increased points scored against the Spurs is partly a function of their new-look offense.

Additionally, much like they did on offense, the Spurs have reinvented themselves defensively and are playing aggressively (9.1 spg; 2nd in the NBA) and excelling in a handful of areas that suggest the added points there are scoring are not coming easily.

First off, they are the best in the NBA in Opponents’ Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA) at 25.1%, meaning Spurs’ opponents only shoot one free throw for every four shots attempts (league average is 31.6%).

They are top-shelf in terms of making plays on D (4th in the league with 16 blocks+ steals+ charges taken per game) and are a top-10 defensive rebounding team, grabbing 75.1% of available defensive rebounds, limiting the opposition’s cracks at their basket.

The Spurs rank fourth in the NBA in lowest Opponents’ Assist Rate (% of opponents’ baskets that are assisted) at 53.74%- this is significant because it suggests that opposing teams are relying on lower-percentage isolation plays for their hoops and aren’t setting up a lot of easy buckets through efficient ball movement. On a related note, 19% of opponents’ possessions end in an assist (league average is 19.9), while 14.8% of opponents’ possessions end in turnover (v. 13.8% league average). For those keeping score, the average ratio of opponents’ possessions ending in assists/turnovers is 1.44, while the Spurs’ ratio is 1.28. (Thanks to HoopData for the, well, data)

So, the Spurs are now near the top of the NBA in scoring and are allowing more points than they have in years past. But make no mistake, defense is still a priority for the Spurs, who remain among the NBA’s elite at making opponents work for their points.

What did I think of the Spurs heading into the season? Check out the Hardwood Hype 2010-11 San Antonio Spurs season preview

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New Orleans Hornets: The Books Are Open, And It Ain't Pretty!

So, the New Orleans Hornets financials are available for public consumption (Deadspin’s got ‘em), and it is NOT pretty!

Let me say this: I am not a big fan of doomsday stories about the financial state of pro sports teams and leagues. It’s not that I don’t “get” financial data (I work in corporate finance) or that I want to “keep real life out of my sports” (I’d like nothing more than to put my education and experience to use in a sports-related finance gig). More than anything it’s that these stories are a) written by individuals that have far greater knowledge of sports than financial analysis (this may be me as well, though I like to think I know both rather well) and b) based largely on speculation and flawed data, as opposed to legitimate financial statements of pro sports teams, which tend to be rather tough to come by.

Plus, as an incorrigible NBA fanatic, they make me really sad.

However, given the apparent authenticity of these financials (the KPMG letterhead goes a long way) and the figures contained herein (more red flags than a Communist rally), they really couldn’t be ignored.

I’m going to try and keep this brief, but man this is quite the clusterf#@k!

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I have not reviewed the financial of NBA teams in the past, and certain accounting practices that appear problematic may be standard for the industry. This is not to say that all teams can’t be wrong, but out of context, there’s no need to vilify the Hornets any more than is deserved.

So… want an idea of why- outside of the stated reason of keeping the franchise in New Orleans, a market that clearly cannot support two major sports franchises- the NBA had to buy the Hornets? Buckle up!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

NBA Saves All Its Love For Rookies- What About The Old Guys?

Following the 2010-11 regular season, as it has every year since 1953, the NBA will hand out the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy, to honor the league’s top newcomer as the Rookie of the Year. The list of the award’s 61 previous recipients (three times the award has been shared by two players) is jam-packed with some of the most iconic names in the game’s history- Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Wilt, Oscar Robertson, Earl Monroe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Chris Paul… you get the picture.

The award serves a dual purpose: honoring the player whose acclimatization to the highest level of competitive basketball is the most seamless, as well as calling attention to the league’s newest crop of young stars. While it certainly makes sense to pay tribute to the players that laugh in the face of growing pains, the Rookie of the Year award strikes me as a bit odd in that it honors standout performances, with eligibility based not necessarily on youth (Arvydas Sabonis had 14 years of professional experience in Europe and was nearly nine years older than Damon Stoudamire when the two were eligible for the 1996 ROY award), but solely on a comparable level of inexperience.

To be clear, I have no issues with the Rookie of the Year award. The player that makes the greatest impact in his first campaign at the game’s highest level is absolutely deserving of recognition. Plus, for someone who’s a fan not only of a specific team but of the entire league, following the Rookie of the Year race is a great way to become acquainted with some fantastic young players that one might not have a chance to watch on a regular basis.

On Sunday night, as I watched the seemingly ageless (he’s actually 36) Marcus Camby torch the Clippers with a positively Camby-esque 12-point (on 7 FGA), 19-rebound (6 offensive) performance, it got me thinking… what about the other end of the spectrum?

The NBA honors players that play well despite never having suited up in the league, but what about the guys who continue to play well after having suited up for years? Laughing at growing pains is great, but so is thumbing your nose (does anyone under the age of 60 still use that term?) at Father Time.

I concluded that the NBA should create a new award- called the “Ageless Wonder,” the “Kareem,” the “Karl Malone Trophy” or, in light of recent results, “An Ode To The Phoenix Suns' Training Staff”- to honor the best individual performance by a 35+ year-old player each season. Team success would be a factor, but the award would focus predominantly on individual achievement in the face of advancing age, much like the Rookie of the Year rewards achievement in the face of inexperience.

After a quick trip to basketballreference.com, where I was able to assemble a list of the best performances by guys 35 or older, I assembled my list of the winners of the “Ageless Wonder” award (if it existed) since 1980. Please note that in three of these seasons the 35+ pool so woefully weak, I bent the rule and used a 34 year-old. Sue me!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Monta Ellis: Already Great, Now AI 2.0

Lemme say this up front. Allen Iverson is one of my all-time favorite players, one of the NBA’s toughest competitors and maybe the most electrifying player I’ve ever seen.

With that said, I am now of the belief that Monta Ellis, whom I have referred to as “AI 2.0” on more than one occasion, is actually a better individual player- not quite as durable and still in search of team success, it must be said- right now than an in-his-prime Answer. If he played for the Lakers or a team located East of the Mississippi, he’d be a perennial All-Star and would be generating some (light) MVP buzz this season.

At the offensive end, Ellis is as devastating as any guard in the NBA right now. His speed and quickness are world-class. He elevates and hangs in the air. He gets into the lane at will and consistently finishes some very tough attempts. At a sturdy 6’3”- 185, he’s able to absorb some punishment (not as much AI, but then, who is?) on his way to the bucket.

However, one of the areas where Ellis has an edge over AI is in the ability to avoid contact in the paint. Where Iverson, with his legendary toughness, welcome contact in the paint, and was thus frequently bouncing off of the floor, Ellis uses his incredible speed and quickness to change directions, seemingly in midair, on his way to the rim.

Offensive efficiency is another area where Ellis’ work trumps Iverson’s. While his averages of 25.5 (6th in NBA in 2009-10) and 24.9 (4th in NBA through 19 games this season) are less than Iversonian, it’s worth noting that during his Philadelphia years, only twice (in 1996-97 and 1997-98, his first two NBA seasons) did Iverson average fewer shot attempts than Ellis’ 2009-10 average of 22 per game (he’s at 19.9 in 2010-11). During that same stretch, only once (46.1% in 1997-98) did Iverson shoot a better percentage than Ellis’ worst percentage in his 4+ seasons as a starter (44.9% in 2009-10).

And while the numbers at HoopData do not go back far enough to cover Iverson’s best years in Philly, it’s tough to imagine him topping Ellis’ fantastic start to the 2010-11 season. Through 19 games (39.5 minutes per game), Ellis is averaging 4.8 field goal attempts “at the rim” (8th among guards and more than double the league average), of whih he’s hitting an incredible 70.1%, third among guards with 3+ attempts per game (Landry Fields and Wesley Matthews are both just above 75% on 3.3 and 3.1 attempts respectively) and well ahead of the league average of 63.9%. From the rim to 10 feet out, Ellis is shooting 52.2%, compared with a league average of 47.1%

From 10-15’ and 15-23’, Ellis is 42.3% and 39%, respectively. These are both in line with the league averages and comparable to Iverson’s overall Philly field goal percentage of 42%. Meanwhile from beyond the arc, Ellis is sporting an effective field goal percentage (converts 3-point percentage into a two-points equivalent) of 50.7%, which is equivalent to a 3-point percentage of 35.5%. By comparison, only twice as a Sixer did Iverson hit as many as one third of his 3s, shooting exactly 34.1% in both 1996-97 and again in 1999-2000.

Lest you think Monta Ellis does nothing but score, let’s take a look at a few more numbers. While Ellis’ biggest strength is his scoring ability he, like Iverson, does rack up some assists. In 2010-11, Ellis is averaging 5.1 apg. This falls short of AI’s Philly average of 6.1 (he averaged 7+ four times), but offset by Ellis’ 2.8 TO/game, pretty good given his minutes/time on the ball, compared with Iverson’s average of 3.7 TO/game (never less than 3.1). When adjusting for assists on 3-pointers (called “Assist+”; N/A for Iverson), Ellis is averaging 6 apg, good for just 23rd in the league, but first among non-PGs and people not named LeBron James.

At the defensive end, Ellis ranks ninth in the NBA (and third among guards, behind Chris Paul and John Wall) in “defensive plays” (steals + blocks + charges taken), with 3.17 per game. Though these numbers were not kept for AI’s Philly days, it’s safe to say that Iverson was probably as good or better (thanks to 2.3 spg in 697 games as a Sixer) in this area.

All of this was on full display in the Warriors’ recent 107-101 home loss to the Phoenix Suns. Ellis was in spectacular form, making 16 of 27 shots- many of them at the rim, but from difficult angles over larger defenders- en route to 38 points, to which he added seven assists. Watch and enjoy:

My point here is a fairly simple one: although Monta Ellis has yet to enjoy any of team success that Allen Iverson did during his career. And while that may come, from a historical perspective, he’ll be hard-pressed to challenge the Herculean feats of Iverson’s 2000-01 MVP season (please, never forget the way he dragged the likes of Eric Snow, Jumaine Jones and Aaron McKie to the 2001 Finals) or Iverson’s “biggest little man ever” title.

These are long-term mountains that Ellis will try to climb. Whether or not he succeeds, or even comes close, remains to be seen- and won’t be clear for years to come.


At the moment, Ellis is one of the league’s most electrifying and entertaining players, with an efficiency to his offensive game that’s uncommon for a player of his size and playing style. Though he doesn’t receive the attention that Allen Iverson did early in the decade, he is, from an individual perspective, Iverson’s equal.

Also, Ellis, a top-shelf offensive weapon, is now a League Pass must-watch (tonight at 7:00 pm Eastern, he and the Warriors visit Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder; one of the most exciting matchups of the early season) and one of the guys in the NBA (like Iverson was before him) who, while amazing on TV, is exponentially more thrilling in person.

Any NBA fan that's taking the time and making the effort- whether attending games, staying up late on the East Coast or DVRing games- is being treated to a display of offensive prowess by Monta Ellis that the NBA has seldom before seen. For everyone else, I can only say this: if you love uptempo basketball played with skill and blinding speed and quickness, give Monta Ellis and the Warriors a shot.

Friday, December 3, 2010

An Anticlimactic Night at the Q - Takeaways

So much for that!

Five months after clumsily announcing his departure from one of America's most depressed sports towns (in favor of one of it's most depressing; way to do your homework there, champ- Fan Up!), LeBron James returned to his old stomping ground, Quicken Loans Arena, walking into what I'd predicted would be "a cauldron that will rival any European soccer stadium." Yeah... about that...

It was one of the most anticipated regular season NBA games in recent years, not because of a particularly compelling matchup on the floor, but because a perpetually downtrodden fan base, one that still wishes death (I'm thinking literally) on Art Modell, was actually getting a crack at the target of their anger. I said it yesterday- anything could happen. However, not much did.

LeBron was booed pretty loudly, but no worse than a referee after a bad call. Big Z was cheered, as were the hometown Cavs (gotta say, the pre-tip-off images of the packed out waving the towels was a legit "goosebump moment"). Still plenty of love for LeBron on the Cavs' bench. During the game, all three of the Superfriends were booed every time they caught the ball, with slightly more volume for LeBron. There were a couple chants, but nothing particularly inappropriate or hurtful.

If you're a Cavs fan, the first six minutes of the game were good! But then wheels came flying off, first with a 16-0 first quarter run by the Heat, then with total domination by LeBron, with help in the form of an excellent 22-9-9 from Dwyane Wade. At the final buzzer, the Heat secured a 118-90 victory, in game that was not as close as the score would lead you to believe.

An evening that began with the potential to go careening off the rails, with a single egomaniac in the crosshairs of 20,000 angry fans, ultimately ended with a disappointing whimper. After a few competitive minutes, the more talented team asserted itself and cruised to an easy victory, with little in the way extracurricular activity from the Cleveland fans. It was an fantastic display of maturity from the home crowd, though ultimately disappointing to the millions across America that entered the HD Coliseum.

We were not entertained! This is not why we were here!

Four random takeaways from an anticlimactic night at the Q:

Jamario Moon should not be allowed to shoot the ball. I'm not sure he should even be allowed to play. Not that he had much of an effect on the game, or that a good game out of him would have swayed the outcome, but man alive is Moon awful. I have had this opinion of him since his Toronto days, but for some reason (and NO, I didn't have money on the Cavs) it drove me crazy on Thursday night.

Like much of the basketball viewing public, I was a Cavaliers fan on Thursday night. Seeing Moon receive the ball on the perimeter, hesitate for a second, and then talk himself into a dead-on-arrival 3-point attempt has got to rank as one of the more demoralizing NBA fan experiences. In 10 minutes on the floor Thursday night, Moon made one of three shots, with both of his misses coming from beyond the arc. Now, lest you think I'm using a small sample to unfairly ridicule the man, realize that Moon, a 23.9% 3-point shooter, is attempting 2.7 of then per game! Byron Scott need to start treating Moon's 3-point attempts the way the league treats technical fouls. Every seven attempts should earn him a one-game suspension, and on his 100th attempt of the season... go home. We'll see you in training camp next fall.

I am hard-pressed to think of a player throughout history that's looked more like an excellent NBA player- and had the athleticism to go with it- without actually having any discernible basketball skills.

In case we’d forgotten, LeBron James is really, really good. This sounds a bit obvious, but in recent months, lost amid vitriol and screams for genuflection was the fact the LeBron is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete and a force of nature. Granted, his play early in the 2010-11 season, even when he’s gotten numbers, hasn’t been the same brand of spectacular that we’ve grown accustomed to.

However, on Thursday night, LeBron was at his dominant best, scoring 38 in three quarters on just 25 shots (of all types) and handing out eight assists. This would have been an impressive performance under normal circumstances, but given the hostile and emotional environment he entered into on Thursday, it was a classic. This was his first “signature performance” as a member of the Miami Heat, and it was truly a pleasure to watch.

Time does, in fact, heal all wounds. Not gonna lie, I was expecting LeBron to receive a nastier reception on his return to the Q. The worst and the best thing about Thursday’s game was the behavior of the Cleveland fans. They booed LeBron loudly and passionately every chance they got and showered him with a few “Asshole” and “Akron hates you” (clever, but probably untrue) chants, but otherwise the evening went off without a hitch.

On the one hand, and I realize this isn’t the “right” sentiment, I was expecting (and frankly kinda hoping for) a bit more nastiness from the home crowd. Mind you, I am not talking about physically endangering the man or engaging in any kind of criminal behavior, but from the get-go, before the game turned into a route, a certain edge that I’d been expecting and dying to flip on the TV to witness, was simply not there. This was an excellent crowd- loud and spirited- but where was the anger?


On the other hand, it was fantastic to see a fan base that’s been cut so deep and felt such hostility toward their former take the high road. They booed, they chanted and they cheered their asses off for their Cavaliers (when there was something to cheer), but at no point did the scene get inappropriate or out of line. While I was kinda rooting for inappropriate (no pictures of Delonte West??), the fans of Cleveland deserve to be applauded.

It’s extremely tiring, and not particularly rewarding, to dedicate a disproportionate amount of one’s energy to anger and hatred, especially when livelihood and life-and-death are not at stake. Although they still feel the stig of The Decision and they still feel betrayed by LeBron, it’s clear that the fans of Cleveland are focusing on what’s good about the team they’ve got, rather than dwelling on what they’ve lost.

But, c’mon! Not one person had a pee-filled water balloon?

By and large, the Cleveland Cavaliers failed their fans on Thursday night. This has nothing to do with the loss. The Miami Heat is an extremely talented team that was motivated and on its game Thursday. That happens. And it will happen again, many times. This is not going to be the last time the Heat run someone out of the gym.

Where the members of the Cavaliers failed was in their treatment of LeBron James. This is not to say that they should have been picking fights with James, but this was a night where the Cavs needed to stand up for their fans. 20,000 people packed the Q on Thursday in hopes of seeing LeBron James squirm. Instead, they got to watch James receive a homecoming not unlike the one I get at my parents house during the holidays. (Though I gotta say, huge props to Mo Williams on this)

Seriously, you guys wanna chill out on the hugs? At least wait until you’re off the court! I wasn’t even aware that LeBron James knew who Jawad Williams was, and yet and one point, I swear I thought he was going to slip the guy the tongue.

Like the TNT guys pointed out, LeBron took some wind out the crowd's sails with his gorgeous first quarter reverse layup (you could almost see thought bubbles popping up in the crowd saying "Oh yeah! That's what we lost!"). I get that. I also get that the 16-0 run first quarter, the second quarter smackdown and LeBron's comprehensive third quarter ass-kicking didn't do much for morale. However, there was also a palpable sense that the Cavs' players were unwilling to go to the place to which their fans were trying to elevate them.

Not saying Andy or J.J. Hickson needed to take a swing at LeBron or try to injure him, but at least one good, hard, CLEAN foul would have done the trick.

And the hugs. Lose the public hugs.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Move Over TNT, LeBron Knows Drama!

The two most suspenseful sports-related moments of 2010 were made possible by LeBron James “The Decision.”

How’s that for irony?

Thanks to one of the most awkward, scripted and stagemanaged pieces of programming in ESPN’s 30-year history, we’ve gotten a pair of genuine “I have no idea what the hell is gonna happen” events in a five-month span. This is not to say that there have not been fantastic games and spectacular moments, but they fall into a different bucket. That’s excitement, not suspense. Those moments are not scheduled and anticipated. Not every anticipated sporting event lives up to the hype and even as a close game heads toward what’s certain to be a dramatic finish, there are really only a few minutes of actual suspense.

However, in the case of The Decision, we had an event that the basketball world had waited two years for culminating in a single hour of television. That it ultimately wound up feeling like an ill-fated SNL skit is secondary. In this era of round-the-clock media, Twitter and the blogosphere, very rarely does a sports story of this type- a free agent signing, a trade, a draft selection- unfold without the result having been reported, written about and analyzed prior to the actual announcement. Thi was an event whose result was kept under wraps fairly effectively. Prior to The Decision, we obviously knew of LeBron’s free agency and the fact that he’d be announcing his new team during the program, but that was it. We know that something was going to happen, but we didn’t know what exactly- and we all had a couple of days to wait, think, speculate and opine on the matter.

Now, in fairness, prior to The Decision, Dan LeBatard, Stephen A. Smith and Chris Broussard- whatever you may think of any of them, all legitimate reporters- all reported that trusted sources had told them that LeBron would be choosing the Miami Heat, but for whatever reason (and correct me if I’m wrong), those reports still had an air of speculation and rumor about them.

Maybe we refused to believe that LeBron would create an hour-long national television spectacle just to crush Cleveland’s soul.

Maybe it was Miami that seemed unbelievable. Of the options LeBron had to choose from (Miami, Cleveland, New York, New Jersey, Chicago and the L.A. Clippers), from a basketball legacy perspective, Miami seemed far closer to the bottom of the list that to the top. Plus, play for the Heat just a day after Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh announced they’d be doing the same? That couldn’t happen!

So, despite a trio of true journalists giving us a spoiler to the movie, we watched anyway, if for no other reason than “to see what was going to happen.” That, my friends, is suspense.

Which brings us to tonight.

One of the most anticipated regular season NBA games in recent memory.

The return of the prodigal son to Northeast Ohio. LeBron leads his thus-far-disappointing “superteam” back to into his old building- which is going to be a cauldron that will rival any European soccer stadium- to face the team and the city that he left for dead. And much like that surreal hour in early July, any number of things could happen. Frankly, outside of the booing, I have no idea what I think will happen. But something’s gonna happen!

I’m sure some portion of the events of this evening will surprise me, but there’s not too much in the realm of realistic possibility that would shock me. Fans storming the court to have a go at LeBron? I could see that. Dan Gilbert paying a former member of the KGB to abduct LeBron? Sure, why not? Anderson Varejao sacrificing a couple games’ salary (officially, we all know Gilbert would repay him 150% in unmarked bills) to become a local icon with a well-timed hip-check? Likely. LeBron “pulling a hamstring” and searching for a side exit? More likely than I’d like to believe.

Hell, even from a basketball perspective this game is pretty interesting. LeBron’s superteam, sporting a not-bad-but-hugely-disappointing 11-8 record (how many titles were they going to win? Six? Seven? Eight?), plagued by unprecedented scrutiny and still searching for an identity, taking on his former team, the Cavaliers, who 7-10 is hardly the stuff of legend, but not nearly as bad as some had predicted.

On the floor, Miami has shown an inability to rebound and to defend active frontcourt players and point guards. While the Cavs don’t have the raw talent and name recognition of the Heat, they’ve got the personnel to make life difficult for the Heat. Up front Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson, Antawn Jamison and Leon Powe to crash the boards and make Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Joel Anthony and Erik Dampier have to move their feet. Meanwhile, at the point, Cleveland features Hype-favorite Ramon Sessions and former LBJ wingman Mo Williams, neither of whom is Chris Paul or Deron Williams, but a pair of decent point guards that can hurt an ill-equipped team. Plus, Williams’ comment that the return of LeBron is “almost like your ex-girlfriend coming to your wedding" is a pretty sure sign that the intensity will be ratcheted up at the Q tonight.

What’ll happen? I don’t know. But something’s goin’ down.

Thanks to LeBron and the self-promotion tour that is his life, in five months we’ve gotten a pair of events, rather trivial in the big picture (the announcement of a decision he’d already made and a single game out of an 82-game season), that have taken on a larger-than-life feel and are must-see TV.

Love him or hate him, you cannot call LeBron James and all that swirls around him boring. The guy knows drama better than TNT.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Effective Aggressiveness- Thy Name Is Russell Westbrook

It might not come as a huge shock to you, but the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook is currently the best penetrator in the NBA. What is a bit surprising is just how much time he spends “at the rim” and how infrequently he requires assistance to get into that position.

According to HoopData, in 2010-11 the average NBA player attempts 2.2 shots per game from point blank range, making 1.4 of them (63% FG), with just over half of the makes (51.2%) coming off of an assist from a teammate. Among guards, the number of attempts and makes falls to 1.7 and 1.0 respectively (60% FG), with 37.1% of makes coming from a teammate’s assist.

In terms of attempts at the rim, 12 of top 29 (I used a cutoff 4.5 attempts/game) in the NBA this season are guards. Other than Westbrook, the league’s best playmakers attempt between 4.5 (Deron Williams) and 6.2 (Dwyane Wade) shots from point-blank range per game, connecting at a clip of 57-60%. Of this group, there are only four others with an assist rate somewhere in the 20s (actually three: Tyreke Evans, Dwyane Wade and Deron Williams; but I bent the rule for Tony Parker, who’s at 30.5%), which means that less than three out of every 10 shots made at the rim by that player is directly attributable to an assist from a teammate.

Of this quartet, the numbers most favor Tyreke Evans, who make 58.9% of his 6 attempts per game at the rim and is “assisted” on just 22.6%. D-Will gives a good account of himself as well, hitting 58.8% of his 4.5 attempts per game, with an assist rate of 26%. The remaining two, Parker (5.8 ATT, 60% FG, 30.5 A%) and Wade (6.2 ATT, 54.7%, 27.6 A%), aren’t not bad themselves, though they fall short of the uppermost tier.

Now, given the increased physicality at the rim and the shot attempt forfeited as a result of each trip to the free throw line, free throw attempts (I don’t have info on how many fouls occurred “at the rim”, so we’ll use total FTA for each player) are another important factor to consider here. The best combo in terms of maximizing both free throw attempt and percentage is D-Will (6.9 FTA, 85.6%), with Wade next based on volume of attempts (9.2 FTA, 72.4%), with Evans (5 FTA, 74.7%) and Parker (3.7 FTA, 79.4%) more or less even.

Now, given all of this, the league averages, as well as the performances of some of the league’s best in these areas, Westbrook’s performance in terms of getting to the rim/free throw line (the aggressiveness index? Huh. I may need to build this!) has been nothing short of jawdropping. In 37 minutes per game (everyone else is in the 34-38 range), Westbrook’s averaging 6.7 field goal attempts at the rim (more than 3xthe league average!), making 57.9% of these attempts and requiring an assists from a teammate on a silly 18.6% of his makes. Of the top 29 in attempts, only two guys, Evans and D-Will, are within 9% of that! And in terms of free throws, Westbrook’s been every bit as amazing, attempting an awesome 9.1 per game and knocking them down at an 88.6% clip.

Not sure if I’m the first to say it, but for my money Westbrook’s leapfrogged every lead guard in the NBA with the exception of Deron Williams and Chris Paul, and I’m hard-pressed to name six backcourt players that are better right now.

What’s the takeaway here? For all the “up-and-coming” talk, Russell Westbrook is already here, and he’s dominant.