Another Winning Feeling

May 24th, 2016

With younger son, Alex, leaving to embark on a professional basketball career in Australia later this week – and the stress level rising – this blog will be suspended until next week – June 1.

At this time of the year, winning is nearly all everybody in the sports world thinks about (although I guess that’s true for any time of the year). The NBA Playoffs are underway and nobody wants to “go fishin’.” Major League Baseball teams are desperately trying to get off to a great start (see the Cubs) or, at the very least, are trying not to be eliminated by July (because that becomes a really long summer). On the PGA Tour golfers are grinding away too, except each one has to beat the entire field in order to win. Same for professional tennis players.

Fans of each of those sports, which includes me, are tuned in daily to whatever is televised or listening while driving (to sports talk, if not live action), plus checking results in the paper or online. Hey, whether your team wins or loses is important stuff. But, as hard as it is to believe (especially if you’re a Raptors’ fan), there are other things in life that are even more important than your team winning. I experienced one of them last Saturday.

My wife, Jane, and I have two sons. Our older son, Andy, graduated from the University of California, Irvine in 2011. It was quite a happening, seeing your first born participate in a real college commencement – realizing he had grown from the toddler we raised to a wide-eyed elementary school kid, to a know-it-all middle schooler, to a guy who wanted to prove he could be trusted, e.g. driving and later curfews, to a young man who actually got it done all on his own, away from home.

I had preached to him that business was the degree he needed to pursue since he didn’t have a burning desire for any specific career, e.g. medicine, law, teaching, social work. So he majored in political science (an academic area he enjoyed studying) – and then began working in the sales industry. He improved his position in the business world with each job move (four in all). A couple months ago, he was hired at SalesForce, a $49 billion company which Fortune 100 rated as the eighth best company to work for in the nation. His on-target earnings for this year dwarf my best salary. Better than that, he loves his work. Andy is on his way to a successful life, being a confident sales executive, yet someone who has remembered the life values we instilled in him throughout the years.

Upholding the family tradition, Alex, too, got through college in four years (something expected in my generation but remarkable in today’s). His college experience was somewhat different in that he was a recruited athlete. Not surprisingly, our favorite team was the California State University, Monterey Bay basketball guys. Jane and I would travel to Otters’ games throughout his four years, missing only a handful of them (including a three-game tournament in Alaska his freshman season). His major was business from the start. Of all the areas of business, he enjoyed marketing most, so his B.S. in Business has a marketing concentration.

Alex worked hard on the court as well and wound up statistically as the school’s leader in points and steals, third in assists and fourth in rebounding. More importantly, the team’s win total increased in each of his four years. Now, he has an opportunity to play professionally in Australia’s Queensland Basketball League. A week after his graduation, he’s off to give it a “shot” down under.

The feeling that went through me (other than pain because the commencement was held outdoors at the track stadium and we had to sit on concrete bleachers) was different than it was at Andy’s graduation ceremonies. During each, there was a tremendous sense of pride, both for our sons, who had achieved a goal and for us who, if nothing else, were parents of college grads. For the first one, it was a sense of accomplishment; for the last, a feeling of completion. No one is sure exactly how to define success for a parent, but when you have two children and both of them earn college degrees, that’s gotta count for something.

During the commencement exercises, I could have sworn I heard my late mother’s message to me when I was around 10 years old. Never was it more true than last Saturday:

“The world is made up of things besides sports.”

The Enigma Facing Most of the NBA Franchises

May 18th, 2016

Two items of business: first, a personal emergency caused me not to blog yesterday. I was in such a rush, I didn’t have time to alert readers and for that, I apologize. Secondly, it’s that time of the year when all the work, blood, sweat, tears and money come to fruition. Yep, college graduation. Younger son, Alex, dons the cap and gown at Cal State Monterey Bay. An academic presentation by him and his group is first, then final residence check out, a grad party or two and the actual commencement ceremony wrap up the week.

For all of those reasons, this blog will take a week hiatus and will return on Tuesday, May 24.

Tracy McGrady made a statement that appalled many, was applauded by many, and is nothing that hasn’t been said before – as in when he was playing. When asked about Steph Curry and his unanimous MVP award, T-Mac said, “Just tells you how watered down our league is. Seriously, think about when MJ played, Shaq. Those guys really played against top-notch competition, more superstars on more teams than it is in our league today. But it’s well deserved; he had a hell of a season.

Big of him to acknowledge the Curry had a hell of a season, wasn’t it? In addition, he was just saying that the vote was unanimous because there aren’t the players in the league that there were when he was in it, trying to point out that the stats accomplished by Curry were done so because there are so many inferior players in the league now, what with expansion and all. That a guy like LeBron James doesn’t provide worthy enough competition?

His comment isn’t as controversial as it seems for the simple reason there are claims like that made every year – made by players from previous generations. Not only that but there is little doubt, today’s players will fully agree with him – years down the road, i.e. after their careers are over and it’s time for them to reminisce. Hey, imagine what the really old timers think. Back when they played, there were only eight teams in the league. Wouldn’t they be considered the absolute cream of the crop?

Sir Charles Barkley made similar remarks, saying the overall talent in the league is the “worst I’ve ever seen it.” Barkley backs up his statement by saying players are coming into the league much too early, that they need to stay in school. On one hand, Chuck makes an excellent point. How can anybody 19-years old (with the exception of Moses Malone and LeBron James) be ready – physically and mentally – to excel in an 82-game season (plus exhibitions and playoffs) against grown men five, ten, fifteen years older, wiser and more mature than they are? Yet, if memory serves me correctly, the law is what caused the mandatory one year after a youngster’s graduating class to be eligible to be drafted, i.e. the “one-and-done rule.” So while what Barkley says is common sense – that it’s foolish to allow it -it’s illegal to hold the kid back.

Football and baseball have a different set of rules but each of those sports allow early entry as well. So what’s the magic age? Certainly, staying in school sounds good but friends of mine who were on the staff at Auburn used to kid that while Charles loved college, he hated class. Even he has said, when asked if he has a degree, “No, but a lot of the people who work for me do.” So staying in school or masquerading in school?

Mark Warkentien, a high-level consultant to the president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks, shared with me his philosophy. “Stein,” as he’s known to many in the business, is one of the most creative thinkers and down-to-earth people I’ve met in all my years in coaching. When asking him about kids coming out before their eligibility is used up, he turned the tables and posed a scenario to me. “With the NCAA’s 20-hour maximum rule and no such restriction in the NBA, where can a kid improve more – especially considering that 20 hours includes, weight lifting and meetings, not to mention team practice? The NBA has no such rules, plus each team has a staff member (who usually has an assistant or two) whose job is designated as a player development coach? Damn good argument.

NBA coaches, possibly because they make so much money (not their fault when franchises are throwing it at them), are getting fired not only for losing or not making the playoffs, but for making the playoffs but not advancing far enough. David Blatt, Mark Jackson, Tom Thibodeau, Kevin McHale, Frank Vogel, Dave Joerger are all examples and while there might be other underlying reasons other than record, it does seem pulling the plug has become easier and easier to do. And, really, how many teams who practice this henchman technique wind up doing that much better?

So, players are entering at such an early age – largely because the NBA is so enamored with “upside.” Meanwhile, coaches are getting the early hook. The dilemma for the coach (or whoever’s job is on the line) becomes how can we improve our roster – quickly? If the answer is through free agency, allow me to let you in on what an NBA coach told me a few days ago (actually, I’ve heard this from several coaches and front office people). “There are only about 5-6 teams where players really want to play: both LA teams, New York, Miami, Dallas and Chicago.” San Antonio can do well because of their history (see how much of a destination it will become when Pop decides to hang ‘em up). Golden State is flying high now but in the recent past, nobody was clamoring to play for the Warriors. Sure, Texas, Tennessee and Florida don’t have state tax but don’t think for a minute players put playing in Memphis and Orlando in the same category as Dallas and Miami. Another factor is the owner. Look no farther than the Clippers to understand that importance. The Warriors and Mavs are winners in that area as well.

The one bit of criticism that makes more sense than anything – certainly more than most of his comments – is what Charles Barkley has been preaching for quite some time regarding the draft. It used to do what it was designed to do – vastly improve a struggling franchise. But now, as Charles says:

“If my team sucks, I don’t want a guy who might be good in five years. That doesn’t help me. I want immediate help.”



Steve Kerr Shares Brilliant Thoughts on Summer Prep Basketball, But . . .

May 16th, 2016

Apparently, someone asked Steve Kerr for his opinions on the summer circuit for prep school basketball players. Not surprisingly, his comments were extremely insightful: “Even if today’s players are incredibly gifted, they grow up in a basketball environment that can only be called counterproductive. AAU basketball has replaced high school ball as the dominant form of development in the teen years.

I coached my son’s AAU team for three years; it’s a genuinely weird subculture. Like everywhere else, you have good coaches and bad coaches, or strong programs and weak ones, but what troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure.

Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren’t happy with their son’s playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week.

The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.”

To say nothing of the lack of fundamentals that young players so desperately need to be taught but aren’t because of “games, games and more games.”

Take a journey with me. The time was the early 1990s. My full-time job was associate head basketball coach at USC. My boss was George Raveling. In my “spare” time, I was assistant chairman of the Recruiting Committee for the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). Our chairman? Yup, George Raveling. In fact, Rave and I had been in those roles since the mid-80s when he was the head coach at Iowa and I was an assistant at Tennessee.

During that time, some recruiting rules were changed or amended (for the record, our committee didn’t have the power to change any rules; we just did the legwork, polled the coaches for their feelings on how best to improve recruiting/make it fair for all concerned, then suggest rule changes or amendments to the NCAA Recruiting Committee). Our greatest challenge came in 1991. Summer basketball (people mistakenly place all of it under the AAU umbrella, although the majority of summer hoops is AAU) was regarded as a villain by many coaches, administrators and the NCAA staff as well. Most felt if summer basketball continued down the path it was headed, it would ruin both the high school and college games.

Our charge, as a committee, was to figure out how the NCAA could take over the summer – since it had the power to sanction which events coaches were allowed to attend. What follows is the short version. We formulated a plan for NCAA-run summer camps so that every prospect would be able to attend (naturally, some would fall through the cracks), at the NCAA’s expense, at geographically selected sites, with a final session for the nation’s top players. I regret not logging exactly how many hours of work I put into this project (one of George’s many skills has been that of delegating, although I kept him updated on the progress and, of course, he added some excellent ideas that I, and the rest of the committee, had failed to take into account). We had the logistics of the camps figured out. They would be held at various sites throughout the nation, e.g. one held in Seattle for the prospects in the Pacific Northwest, one in Denver for the kids in the Rocky Mountain states, one in New England for those players, etc. while there might be two such camps in Southern California and New York City, due to the sheer number of highly talented guys in those areas.

We had a list of high school coaches and guys who wrote up (legit) recruiting services who would elicit names and decide which youngsters deserved invitations. Every time a protestation of some sort was brought up, we dealt with it, until we finally had a model to present to the NCAA. We even drew up a budget which included everything brochures, airfare, ground transportation, room and board, referees, gear, insurance for participants (if memory serves me correctly, it was in the neighborhood of $250-300K) which we doubled because we anticipated the NCAA wanting to implement a similar concept for girls.

We presented our model, as we had been instructed, to the NCAA – who summarily rejected it. Word leaked back to me form friends I had in the organization that, although we had the sites selected, the staff (made up of hundreds of high school and retired coaches) committed, the method of choosing which prospects played where (with the final week left open for a session comprised of the “best of the best” made up of those who dominated their particular camp), the NCAA felt the idea was too labor intensive. To me, “labor intensive” simply means work.

So, for those of you who agree with Steve Kerr (count me in that group), let it be known the NCAA had a chance to clean it up. The one thing we need to take into consideration is: With all this going on, there is more money than ever for the NCAA’s television rights and next year, NBA players’ salaries are going through the roof. I guess the only question regarding summer (AAU) basketball is:

“How does that make sense?”

One Reason for the NBA Coaching Carousel

May 15th, 2016

Seemingly moments after losing his job in Memphis, Dave Joerger was hired by the Sacramento Kings. Back room dealing goes on in most businesses (I think anyone who doesn’t think so is an incurable optimist or naive as all get out), so why not in the NBA? It was reported that the Kings had interviewed Sam Mitchell, Vinny Del Negro and Mike Woodson – all former NBA head coaches with varying degrees of success. They also made it known that both Kevin McHale and Mark Jackson, also NBA ex-head coaches with proven track records, were going to be afforded interviews. Apparently, the Kings were looking for someone with head coaching experience.

Hold on just a minute. It was widely known the Kings were targeting Luke Walton for the top spot – a job he evidently did not desire since he showed no interest in even interviewing. Note: Walton’s sudden surge in the eyes of NBA decision-makers is an excellent example of being ready for your opportunity when it presents itself – even if it’s just an interim position. (Inheriting a championship team that had every vital piece returning aids in the success process too – but, still, he could have screwed it up). So maybe the Kings wanted an assistant? The coach who got the pink slip, Mike Malone, supposedly had bonded with enigmatic post player, Demarcus Cousins and he had been an assistant when he was named to the top spot. Rumors surfaced (in the NBA rumors are closer to the truth than in any other major professional sport) that assistant coaches Elston Turner of Memphis and Nate McMillan of Indiana were going to be interviewed, although selecting the former would be somewhat ironic since he was an assistant on the staff of Joerger. I mean, why settle for a second banana when you can have the one on top?

First and foremost, though, at the top of the Kings’ list of qualities for their next head coach (their third in three years) is, according to GM Vlade Divac, “a coach who will be on the same page with the front office and the players.” Divac said he felt George Karl was a great coach (fifth all-time in wins) and did some great things with the team but, as the favorite saying of those who fire coaches goes, “we need to get a new voice.” That statement means different things to different organizations. In Sactown the translation is we need to get somebody who can get along with Cousins and maximize his talents (which means gaining his trust and buying in to the coach’s philosophy first). When John Calipari’s name was bandied about, there was absolutely zero interest from the Kentucky coach. Sure, Cal said all the right things – how Cuz was never a problem to coach, etc. but left unsaid was, “After all I had to put with – for only ONE season – you think I want the challenge of dealing with this cat for 82+ games?”

Also not to be forgotten in the conversation is Rajon Rondo (another UK product) and another ultra-talented player whose biggest negative, from the people I’ve heard who have worked with him, is that he is absolutely convinced that, whichever room it is, he has to be the smartest guy in it. Somewhere down the list is actual knowledge of basketball. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is in today’s “Association.”

To further prove the theory, it was immediately reported that, after firing Joerger, the Grizzlies were interested in Frank Vogel who had performed quite admirably as coach of the Indiana Pacers. Larry Bird, as honest as any NBA executive is, was visibly upset at having to make a coaching change yet he, too, used the “new voice” mantra.

As I’ve noted on innumerable occasions in these posts, my experience is with the college hoops game more so than any other level. Here’s an observation I made while watching the Oklahoma City Thunder upset the San Antonio Spurs. Comparing the respect for Billy Donovan, the two-time national championship coach at the University of Florida and Billy Donovan, the guy who has just led a team to the NBA Western Conference finals:

“At Florida, Billy’s players worshiped him; at OKC, they tolerate him.”


Van Gundy Admits Defeat Without Much of a Fight

May 14th, 2016

When I met Jeff Van Gundy he had just completed a graduate assistant season under Rick Pitino at Providence. The occasion was a self-improvement clinic Larry Shyatt and I began a couple years prior. Jeff had written a letter, requesting to be a part of our group, whether as a clinician or just an observer. We asked him to speak on Providence’s full court press.

Jeff showed up with personalized, three-rind binder for each of us (approximately six other assistant coaches), with every drill the Friars used, accompanied by a thorough, enthusiastic explanation of each one. It didn’t take long to realize this cat had exceptional knowledge and, even after his career skyrocketed all the way to attaining NBA head coaching gigs, he continued to attend our gatherings. It was blatantly apparent this young guy was a sensational coach. His knowledge of the game and attention to detail, combined with his ability to communicate with players of any generation, translated to a long-term career in the game.

Whether he fell into the color commentary position or he sought it following a couple successful head coaching tenures, he’s excelled in that area as well. In addition to being able to understand the nuances of the game – and having the ability to explain to the fan – combined with his self-deprecating style captures the hearts of his viewers. His penchant for including the audience, providing thought-provoking commentary and reminiscing about years gone by keep everybody glued to his observations. Unlike many in his field, he doesn’t come off as a know-it-all, more like a fan with an educated opinion.

A couple games ago, while working a Golden State-Portland game, he remarked that the Blazers’ backcourt of Damian Lilliard (Weber State) and C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) had to be as good a pair of guards from “non big time” colleges as ever graced an NBA floor. Independent of whatever challenger someone came up with, the viewing audience just knew there would be a debate. Until play-by-play man, Mike Breen, countered with, “How about the Knicks’ duo of Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois) and Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State)?” With such small colleges as a Big Sky team (Weber) and a Patriot League institution (Lehigh), listeners were ready for an argument.

Instead, Van Gundy (a Knicks’ fan as a youngster) simply gave the following replay:

“That’s the winner. Game over!”

Why the Media Asks Those Timely, Insensitive Questions

May 13th, 2016

At the NCAA Regional Finals in Anaheim, the #1 seed Oregon Ducks had just lost to #2 Oklahoma in a game that sent the Sooners to the number one goal every college player dreams of – the Final Four. There’s a brief cooling off period before the media is allowed to interview the players and coaches. Because of other media commitments for the winners, the losing team is required to speak first.

Usually the requests are for three players and the head coach to attend the post game press conference. It’s always difficult watching these pressers because the season comes to such an abrupt end. The NCAA tourney is a sudden death ordeal, unlike the NBA’s best-of-seven playoffs. Therefore, every game is like Game 7 to a college kid – meaning the loser has to face the realization that . . . it’s over.

For seniors not only is the season over, but for the guys who aren’t going to play professionally, their basketball career is over. For many of them, they’ve been playing since they could walk. So that’s a pretty big dose of reality to swallow for a 22-year-old kid. Yet, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports Network thought it was both appropriate and necessary to ask Oregon’s seniors, 20 minutes after the game – and their dreams – ended, “How much does this loss hurt?”

Dwayne Benjamin was the first to answer. He looked up and said, “I’ve never felt like this before, never been this sad. Not because we lost but because we can never call this team a team again.” And that is why media members feel obligated to ask the probing questions at such difficult times. Naturally, Benjamin had been sadder – certainly when a loved one died but, for raw emotion, Rothstein got the powerful quote he was hoping for.

Flash forward to last night’s Game 6 elimination victory for Oklahoma City over the San Antonio Spurs. Look, we all get it. Tim Duncan turned 40 last week. While he’s been referred to as “the greatest NBA power forward ever,” there is no doubt that he has slowed down. Considerably. In this country one segment of society loves to deify athletes – until they show signs of no longer having the ability to dominate. Then, they will drop that athlete as fast as they’ll replace him with . . . someone who reminds them of him “back when.”

It was just March 23 that an article was written about “Old Man River-walk” entitled, Stats aside, Duncan may be having his best season yet” (Fran Blinebury, Sure, there has been a transition from being the leader scorer to a veteran “player-coach” but, after all, the Spurs did win 67 (out of 82) regular season games and posted a 40-1 home record during that period. Duncan’s stats have dropped significantly to 8.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks (from 19.0 pts, 10.8 reb and 2.2 blocks) but aren’t his current numbers what the Spurs could use from a back up post player? Did he hurt the team that badly during the season? During last night’s telecast, Jeff Van Gundy warned people not to pass judgment on Duncan for his play in the OKC series alone.

Duncan has been taking pay cuts so it’s not like San Antonio would be freeing up a ton of cap space. (In an article on the richest NBA players, he rated ninth with an estimated net worth of $150 million, so he’s as savvy with the financial part of his life as he is with the professional side) and what price can be put on his leadership and the fact that a living legend, a future Hall of Famer is still on the squad, acting as a role model, willing and able to discuss the Spurs’ style and NBA life to the younger guys? The main question for the Spurs is – will whichever player they get in Duncan’s place be an improvement on next year’s roster?

Possibly due to the respect the members of the media have for him – or possibly due to feeling intimidated – the question was of the hem and haw variety: “Have, uh, you taken any time, at all, to think about your future?” Duncan gave the veteran’s reply – which might be why media guys love to ask young kids questions during the tough times:

“I’ll get to that after I get out of here and figure out life. That’s it.”


Wrapping Up the Golden State-Portland Series

May 12th, 2016

The NBA, as I’ve posted on numerous occasions, is a game played by the greatest athletes in the world. Yet, in the series between the Warriors and Blazers, what we saw often boggled our minds. There is no doubt that excitement abounded throughout every game but . . . those guys did some of the “damn-dest” things on the court. Considering there was so much at stake, it was amazing some of the foolish actions that were committed, most of which are unforced, time and again.

Whether it was careless turnovers (a lack of regard for the taking care of the ball or being more interested in looking good rather than being effective, who knows), innumerable bad shots (many that went in but, eventually, they caught up to each team), giving up offensive rebounds (although, sometimes, they were due to outstanding efforts by the offensive rebounder), missed free throws (certainly, those at crucial times),  losing big leads (maybe due to playing too cautiously), jumping without knowing where to pass (a cardinal sin back in the day) or the coach’s biggest pet peeve – fouling jump shooters (especially three-point shooters - shouldn’t professionals know better), it’s incredible that these players – with so much on the line – continued to play that way. Could the pressure of the playoffs have had anything to do with it?

Another group under pressure – even more than the players and coaches – were the referees because, independent of the score, they can never win. After all, if there’s one thing a viewer could count on, it was that on every call – and a large majority of the “no calls” – at least one player, and usually his coach, would complain whine to the referees. As, invariably, would the viewer.

One thing for sure, though, is anyone watching the Warriors play, will, at least once (and probably more), see a millionaire get humiliated. If you’re not sure who it is, here’s a hint:

“Whichever guy is guarding Steph Curry.”


Dwyane Wade Could Have Easily Disarmed the Entire Canadian Anthem Controversy

May 11th, 2016

A minor controversy (although “minor” depends upon who is asked) arose in Miami prior to Game 3 of the Heat-Raptors playoff series. As anyone who has ever attended a professional basketball game knows, prior to each contest, the national anthem is played. When the Raptors are one of the opponents, a rendering of the Canadian national anthem accompanies our Star Spangled Banner. If Toronto is the visiting team, its anthem is played first.

Many players have a routine before each game and completing it is a must in order to feel “ready” for that night’s game. Maybe it’s psychological, maybe superstitious but, whatever the case, the feeling’s not right unless it’s finished. Dwyane Wade has a ritual which ends with him making his last shot, a jumper from the right wing. He was caught up in his pregame behavior when a young lady, wearing a Heat shirt, was introduced and began singing Oh Canada. Wade was at one of those times when his last shot just wouldn’t go down.

Possibly unaware it was time to stand and honor the anthem of another country, he continued to shoot, and shoot, and shoot until he finally knocked one in. It wasn’t just a moment or two, but 18 seconds. With the image D-Wade has and all the goodwill he’s built during a Hall of Fame – and Olympic – career, this incident could have easily been resolved with a simple apology, perhaps saying he was so wrapped up in his pregame warmups, he didn’t realize the Canadian anthem had started. Surely, he would have been forgiven as he was more unaware than he was trying to make a statement.

Instead, he offered no such apology, instead claiming “It’s something that I do before every game that I prepare for, and I’ve been doing it my whole career.” Canadians took that as Wade saying they should understand that his ritual is more important than their national anthem. “I’m not a disrespectful person,” he continued. “So if anybody thinks I’m being disrespectful to a country, then they don’t know who Dwyane Wade is.” His reasoning was that the NBA didn’t allow enough time for his proper warmup. What has struck many as odd is that, had another player continued to shoot while the Star Spangled Banner was being sung, D-Wade would be the first person to step in and correct the wrongdoer.

However, his casual dismissal of what occurred drew the ire of many of the folks representing “We The North.” Regarding Wade’s “I’m not a disrespectful person” comment, former Ontario premier Bob Rae tweeted: “Sure coulda fooled us!” Toronto mayor John Tory remarked, “Hey @DwyaneWade  a Canadian invented the game. Respect the anthem.” And Norman James of CTV commented, “Dwayne Wade, a revered elder statesman in the NBA, can’t cool off for a minute and stand for the Canadian anthem? Bush league.”

Although he had no way of knowing it back then, Benjamin Franklin summed this situation succinctly:

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

“We Done Seen It All”

May 10th, 2016

The Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat played an exciting playoff game last night that, for the third time in the four games of this series, took overtime to decide the winner. Then, the main attraction came on.

The Golden State Warriors set the record for most games won in a regular season (73) but, apparently, someone forgot to tell the Portland Trailblazers. The first three games of the series were won by the home teams, so with the game in Portland, the Blazers felt pretty good about their chances, especially with this year’s sure-fire MVP Steph Curry (assuming the players association doesn’t vote for James Harden) having missed each of the first three games and doubtful for this one. Even with a rumored 25-minute restriction placed on him – which probably was the plan.

Until a bad no-call (instant replays have to be #1 on referees’ most hated inventions list) after Shaun Livingston scored on a fast break – and got hit in the head as he did. Playoff basketball is ultra-intense and Livingston complained for the ensuing 60 feet. The official, invoking the referees’ code “don’t show me up,” slapped a tech on Livingston. (The late Jim Valvano once remarked to a ref who made that claim after giving him a T, “Show you up – who do you think came here to watch you?“) Although his emotions were running high, Livingston lost his cool, received another technical – and with it, an automatic ejection. He let down his team in numerous ways. 1) he was the one starting in Curry’s place and was counted on to play the majority of the minutes at point guard, 2) playoff games are usually close and it’s not like you need to be giving away free points to your opponent and 3) by getting thrown out, it meant either playing Curry more than anticipated or going deeper into the bench – neither of which were part of the game plan.

My feeling, especially now that instant replay is so much a part of sports, is that officials usually know when they’ve blown a call. In that case, they should (certainly after issuing one technical) do whatever they can to get away from whoever’s arguing – just so you don’t compound your mistake by making another one, i.e. don’t penalize someone even further for your error. In spite of how bad the call was – and, admit it, you’d be highly upset if you got smacked in the head while you were in a vulnerable position – Livingston needed to display more self-discipline, independent of (or maybe because of) the circumstances. Instead, he continued to complain, knowing a call like that has never been a reversed. From one particular camera angle, you could lip read the “mf” he dropped on the official, which everyone knows simply cannot be overlooked – especially when the player is so close to the referee. That’s, as it should be, automatic.

There are two items in Livingston’s defense. One is that it was an obvious missed call. However, there are so many obvious missed calls in an NBA game – some that go against you but some in your favor – that you just eat your pride, control your anger and hope you’ll get the benefit of the doubt later in the game. Why Shaun Livingston should be given a pass on this one is because it was the first time in his 11-year NBA career that he’s been tossed from a game. Therefore, one would hope this will definitely serve as a learning situation. It will become an even stronger one if Curry incurs any serious repercussions from having played more than he probably should have.

Back to the game. Curry sat the first four minutes. When he entered, it was clear his timing was off, as everyone expected it to be. He didn’t seem as comfortable, nor in the flow, right away. His shots weren’t dropping. Although he’s had some off nights shooting, I’m sure research will show (I’ll leave something like that to the stat heads) there weren’t too many contests in which he played where he missed his first nine threes. It did seem as though the game was getting more and more familiar to him as it went on. Because of the type of shooter he is, it looked like, when he made a deep step-back two (his foot was on the line) late in the game, his rhythm had returned.

That last line might be in the running for understatement of the season. He hit his first three-pointer with 4:35 to go in the fourth quarter and, from then on, it was Katy bar the door. They were the first three of 23 points he would score from then through the overtime. His final line was 40 points, nine rebounds, eight assists in 37 minutes. The 17 points he scored in the overtime period were an NBA record for points scored in an OT – of any NBA game, not just playoff games. His only flaw down the stretch was not making the floater he created at the end of regulation. Maybe that wasn’t dramatic enough for him.

It was then that the viewing and listening audience knew what Curry yelled at the Portland crowd after one of his late threes:

“I’m back.”

Kershaw Sheds Light on Strategies Based on Analytics

May 9th, 2016

Recently I’ve posted a couple blogs on analytics, the latest miracle or fad, depending on your beliefs. It’s become an entree into the game for (mostly) non-players, i.e. guys who enjoy the game (whatever sport that might be) but never really had the skill to play. Naturally, there are exceptions but, for the most part, that’s an accurate description of the people who have invaded the sports world.

The philosophy many basketball coaches have been enthusiastically buying into is that of shot selection. To them, the most effective means of scoring is either shooting layups (which have always been a popular shot) or three-pointers. The so-called mid-range shot should no longer be part of a player’s arsenal. While I majored in math – and have always had a fondness for numbers, I vehemently disagree with this theory. I fully comprehend that a player need only shoot at a 33% clip from beyond the arc to score as many points (on as many shots) as another who shoots 50% from inside the line, e.g. a player who took six shots, making two, from beyond the three point line (33%) would score six points, while another player would have to shoot make three out of six (50%) from inside the arc in order to match the six point production.

Offenses have been designed to maximize the number of three-pointers a team can take, stretching the floor, thus spreading out the defense and making it more difficult to guard. If the defense decided to continue to pack it in, the offense would be shooting threes all night. Then, when the defense would be forced to extend, layups off back cuts and drives to the basket would produce points at the rim. It sounds good in theory and, I can say I’ have seen it work. My skepticism derives from other factors.

One is, as with any offense or offensive philosophy, it must fit the personnel. Independent of how good someone is in the area of teaching shooting, it’s difficult to make someone into an effective three point shooter. Better, yes, but not good, meaning the offense is depending on someone who is not a particularly good outside shooter to make shots. While it is possible to “hide” one of this type of player (maybe a big, rugged guy more suitable to rebound), it’s nearly impossible to make that offense work efficiently with more than one “non-shooter.” A better philosophy is, simply, to get good shots. When I was coaching, I defined a good shot as a two-point shot a player could make 75% of the time and a three-pointer he could make 50% of the time – unguarded. Of course, a good shot for one player might not ne a good shot for another.

An additional reason I’m not sold on the “layup or three” philosophy is that it is basically saying there is no room for the mid-range game in basketball. In all my experiences in the game, I can think of so many great players who were extremely hard to guard – because of their mid-range game. One of them who comes to mind is the G.O.A.T. – Michael Jordan. Yes, he made himself into a very good three-point shooter but, had he eschewed the mid-range part, his effectiveness would have considerably decreased. Chris Paul is another who opponents would love to see discontinue using a mid-range game. There is no one in the NBA who is more deadly shooting free throw line jumpers than CP3.

Another player who comes to mind was a guard we had at one of the colleges I coached. He was the leading scorer in our conference two years in a row. This kid had a lightning quick first step and could get by most anyone who was defending him. He was rather thin and not overly explosive, so when he took it all the way to the hole, he’d often get his shot blocked. What he could do, though, was, once he got by his defender, he could stop on a dime – and jump straight up. More likely than not, his defender wouldn’t give up when he initially went by him but would try to recover. This would result in a collision and our guy drawing a shooting foul (three-point play if the shot went in). He was a 90% free throw shooter. Forcing him to take only layups or threes would have negated a couple great strengths of his.

There’s a good chance I am overly sensitive to this philosophy because I have taught my son, a swing guard who is crafty enough to get by his defender, but whose game lacks the necessary vertical skill (the ability to jump isn’t a strength) to finish in a crowd. I began tutoring him on the art of the pull up jumper or, even, the floater when he got to college, because he wasn’t receiving the foul calls he did in high school. It was a bigger, more physical game, and more contact allowed. It didn’t take too many “Wilson sandwiches” to understand that he either needed to jump higher (and quicker) or work on alternative shots. Each of those – the 1-2 step (or jump stop) into a mid-range J and the floater – became a big part of his game. He became proficient at beating his man and shooting the ball before the help side defender had time to block his shot. The three keys to his prosperity, which I’m certain come as no surprise, was exactly what usually produces success: practice, practice, practice.

I read an interesting article after Clayton Kershaw’s last outing. He was asked about using the “shift” in baseball, e.g. rather than placing two infielders on one side of the diamond and two on the other, putting three guys on one side and having the remaining infielder take the entire other side. Naturally, this is because the proclivity for that batter is, overwhelmingly, according to the stats, to hit the ball to one side (think dead pull hitter). Just another form of analytics. Kershaw doesn’t like the idea of, call it “non-traditional” baseball and it probably stems from his career, possibly dating all the way back to Little League.

Here’s what he said when asked about using the shift: “I think just mentally for me I can live with a hard-hit ball getting through a hole as opposed to a soft, cheap ground ball that goes through because no one is playing there because of a shift.” You see, how analytics affects a player’s psyche – something I think is too often disregarded by those who try to reduce the game to mere statistics – is vital to that player feeling comfortable with that style. Sports are made up of numbers but, lest we forget, it’s people who produce the numbers. If not, the best coaches and managers would be whoever consistently wins their fantasy league.

Kershaw commented that he didn’t want to be lumped in with “all other left-handed pitchers” when forming a strategy, that if numbers were going to be used to decide how the guys behind him were going to be aligned, it should be based on how that hitter did against him, not how he did against all left-handers. He continued:

“Mentally, it’s just easier for me to swallow.”