Friday, June 25, 2010

Musings on an Odd Draft Night

I would have to say that that was one of the odder NBA Drafts I can remember, what with one of the league's best GMs getting fired at its outset, multiple teams playing a "Can You Top This?" game of thoroughly denuding their rosters in pursuit of sacred cap space, so many middling trades that it was hard to remember who had landed where by the end of the night, and Otis Smith even pitching in with the surprising news that the Magic have explored a Hedo Turkoglu return.

And, I think we're going to be looking at an odd rookie class, in that I believe two players who weren't even drafted tonight - Blake Griffin and Tiago Splitter - will be All-Rookie First Team players next season.

For further oddities, this has to be one of the strangest college conference breakdowns I can remember (total picks, 1st rounders in parens):
    Big East: 11 (4)
    Big 12: 10 (7)
    ACC: 9 (5)
    SEC: 7 (5)
    International: 6 (1)
    [SEC - Kentucky: 5 (5)]
    WAC: 4 (2)
    C-USA: 4 (1)
    [SEC - non-Kentucky: 2 (0)]
    Pac-10: 2 (1)
    Big 10: 1 (1)
    A-10: 1 (1)
    Sun Belt: 1 (0)
    D-League: 1 (0)
    Mountain West: 1 (0)
    Horizon: 1 (1)
    Colonial: 1 (1)
The night was dominated by the Big East, Big 12, ACC and Kentucky.

- Kentucky alone had as many draftees than the Pac-10, Big Ten and the rest of the SEC combined. Kentucky also had 3 lottery picks, while those other three entities had 1 combined.

- The WAC and Conference USA each had more draftees than the Pac-10 and the Big Ten combined. 8 picks from the WAC + Conf. USA; 5 picks from the Pac-10, Big Ten and non-Kentucky SEC combined.

As far as some quick winners and losers:
- Washington: Yes, the Kirk Hinrich contract is onerous, but in the big picture, I still think it was a banner night for the Wizards franchise, as they added the most likely superstar of the evening in John Wall. I also thought they accumulated talent with good value picks of Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker later in the 1st.

- Sacramento: The Kings win just for having DeMarcus Cousins fall to them at 5, though I was struck with a flash of "Oh yeah, that's right..." when highlights of Seraphin scoring over a decidedly lethargic Cousins at the 2009 Hoop Summit were shown later in the night. I like Hassan Whiteside's upside as a 2nd-rounder, too.

- Winning Cap Spacers TBD: Everyone is ready to roll for July 1 now, baby. I have no idea what's going to happen, and don't know if it's possible for anyone to know, but...

...I did find it intriguing that respected veteran Chicago Tribune beat writer K.C. Johnson said this: "As someone who covered Jalen Rose during his Bulls days, know this: He doesn't talk out of school. So his LBJ intel shouldn't be discounted," after Jalen's breathless tweets saying, "(research/sources say) It is almost CERTAIN that LEBRON JAMES WILL NOT be returning to the CAVS! (Bulls/Heat/Clips)". We gunna see.

- Oklahoma City: Sometimes it feels like Sam Presti's playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. He turns 21 and 32 into Cole Aldrich (whom I like as a rebounder and defender) and Daequan Cook (a good value as a shooter with a reasonable contract). Also, my colleague Jay Aych likes 7-2 Tibor Pleiss's potential.

- L.A. Clippers: Not a home run by any means, but two good value picks IMO with Al-Farouq Aminu at 8 and Eric Bledsoe at 18. Clips continue to stockpile young talent.

- San Antonio: Like the value in James Anderson at 20. Plug in Tiago Splitter at C, and these guys are right back near the top of the West if they stay healthy.

- L.A. Lakers: A very mild winner given that it was pick 43, but I think Devin Ebanks is a real sleeper as a defensive specialist. Wall, Evan Turner and Wes Johnson were a combined 17-42 vs. West Virginia this year, while Stephen Curry went 9-27 against them last year.

- Minnesota: Wes Johnson is the El Busto of the evening to me. Statistically, his closest similarity is J.R. Giddens. Have to take Cousins there, he's too talented. I know that that's a lot of defensively-challenged bigs, but make a deal for a better wing than Johnson. I do like Nemanja Bjelica's upside; maybe Tony Ronzone should make all the picks.

- Portland: What a disaster, to can one of the league's best GM's - the man who expertly transformed the team both on-court and off-court - at the start of the draft. Inexplicable and classless. I actually liked KP's last moves in Portland, maneuvering for Luke Babbitt and Elliot Williams, but it still has to be considered a depressing day in the Rose City.

- New Jersey: In general, I really like Derrick Favors a lot and I support the pick. But after watching several of his games, I have some concerns about the quality of his hands. He just seems to drop or mishandle too many passes/rebounds that he shouldn't. It's tough to be an effective big man offensively without good hands. I still think Favors has great upside and the chance to be an disruptive defensive player with the right coaching, and I think he's a good fit with Brook Lopez. I'm still in the pro-Favors camp, and I take solace in the fact that statistical analysts love him, but color me concerned.

OK, start that clock ticking toward July 1.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

International 2nd Round Prospects: Scouting Alexey Shved, Miroslav Raduljica, Nemanja Bjelica & Paulo Prestes

On Tuesday, we focused on international 1st round prospects, Tibor Pleiss and Kevin Seraphin. Today, we will break down some int'l players who could be picked in the 2nd round.

The four 1988-born int'l players we'll analyze are Alexey Shved, Miroslav Raduljica, Nemanja Bjelica and Paulo Prestes. You could make a case that Shved, Bjelica and Raduljica all have legit 1st-round talent. But for varying reasons, they can't find their way into the 1st-round discussion.

Alexey Shved
6-6 PG/SG
Dynamo Moscow (Russian SuperLeague)
21 Years Old

Shved could be the sleeper of the 2nd round, maybe the sleeper of the entire draft. Really impressed with what we've seen of Shved on tape. If Shved played college ball this year, no doubt he would be generating more buzz.

The only PG prospects on a higher tier than Shved are John Wall and Avery Bradley (if you consider him a PG). Might even consider Alexey a better prospect than Eric Bledsoe, Greivis Vasquez or Willie Warren.

Has nice athleticism that should help his game translate well to the NBA. Great size for a PG and can slide over to the 2-guard in a pinch. Fast with ball and very comfortable in transition.

After seeing very little burn with CSKA, he was loaned out to Dynamo Moscow this year. In 21 Russian SuperLeague games, Alexey averaged 10.3 ppg, 3.7 apg & 44% shooting in 23 mins per.

Already has an advanced understanding how to run pick/roll. Terrific handle with crossover moves and hesitation dribbles to freeze defenders. Deft passing skills. Can drive left or right, and is a danger to knock down pull-ups going right or left. Right now, he's probably a better pull-up shooter than spot shooter.

His 3pt. shooting numbers were not good this year--29%--but still think he's a capable shooter. Has a nice stroke but tends to drift on his jumper. He lets his legs splay out from underneath sometimes.

Thought Shved's defensive ability was serviceable. He moved well laterally and was usually in good position to contest. Though, he definitely needs to beef up his lithe frame for the rigors of the NBA.

Orlando needs to consider Shved with the 29th pick. The Magic could use a reserve PG and Shved could also play alongside Jameer Nelson when needed.

He might have the goods to be a starting-caliber point in the future. At worst, he could have a long career as a combo guard off the bench.

Miroslav Raduljica
7-0 Center
FMP Zeleznik (Adriatic League/Serbia)
22 Years Old

An old-school center with a big, thick frame. You expect him to be a lumbering center with his big body that lacks definition, but he has decent mobility. Will be at a disadvantage athletically in the NBA, but by no means a stiff. Not really overweight, but wouldn't hurt to tighten up his frame.

Like how he's physical and not afraid to seek out contact on both ends of the floor. Shows a little nasty streak on occasion.

Surprisingly, has a nice handle for a guy his size. He can face up on the perimeter and is capable of putting the ball on the deck. Even sometimes shows off a quick dribble pull-up, something you rarely see from centers. Solid jumper out to 15 feet, but his shot tends to breaks down past 15-16 feet.

Very effective in the post and comfortable maneuvering on either block. Good footwork--spin moves, drop steps and up/unders part of his repertoire.

Likes to finish around the rim with his left hand. Also, likes to toss up righty hooks. Does not have the best hops, which causes problems clearing shots on occasion. But does seem to get off the ground alright when he has a running start.

Raduljica is average defender by European standards. He guards post-ups well thanks to his willingness to bang, but is not really a rim protector. Likely will have difficulties defensively in the NBA.

In 23 Adriatic League games, Miroslav averaged 13.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg (2 off.) and 58% shooting in 26 mins per (numbers are nearly identical for 14 EuroChallenge games).

Raduljica damaged his draft status by skipping out on a workout for NBA folks at the Adidas Euro Camp. This decision might indicate Miroslav prefers to stay in Europe. Or he might have wanted to control his own NBA destiny. If he goes undrafted this year, he can sign with any NBA team as a free agent in the future.

Nemanja Bjelica
Red Star Belgrade (Adriatic League/Serbia)
6-10 SF
22 Years Old

Has the talent of a first rounder, could even make the case that he has lottery talent. You hear comparisons to Toni Kukoc or Hedo Turkoglu thrown around, and you definitely see shades of those two in Bjelica.

In 19 Adriatic games, Nemanja averaged 8.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 spg and 43% shooting in 25 mins (numbers were similar in 12 EuroCup games).

Deft ball-handler for his size. Good with crossover moves and hesitation dribbles. Can move all over the floor and play multiple positions.

Shares similarities with Shved's game. Very adept at running the pick/roll and this is where you see shades of Hedo. Great passer who's good at changing the touch and trajectory of his passes. His defender rarely disrupts his vision because of his size advantage (similar to Hedo).

His 3pt. numbers were not too good this year--25% in Adriatic & EuroCup. But, like Shved, he has a nice looking shot that bodes well for the future. No problems getting his shot off cleanly. And like Shved, has shown his ability to hit jumper off the bounce going left or right.

Solid athlete for Europe but likely to have some issues keeping up laterally with NBA SFs. Needs to add weight, especially if his NBA team wants to play him at the 4. A tendency to be too passive during stretches and which keeps him from being a sure-fire 1st rounder.

*--Late word from Draft Express says Bjelica signed a 3-year deal with Benetton with $1 mil buyout attached to each year.

Paulo Prestes
CB Murcia (ACB)
6-10 PF/C
22 Years Old

A Brazilian wide-body who was the 2nd best rebounder in the highly competitive Spanish ACB. Prestes was quite productive in 27 ACB games--9.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg (3 off.) & 59% shooting in 23 mins per.

Has a doughy build that needs to be tightened up. Subpar athlete with little lift off the floor. Doesn't run the floor particularly well and sometimes seems like he's winded.

His strength on offense is his post game. Has decent footwork--better than Pleiss or Seraphin--and loves to finish his moves with a hook. Very effective with his righty hook, particularly on the left block. Good at setting up his hook shot with a reverse half-spin to get his defender off-balance a la Vlade Divac.

Not impressed with his defense. Poor lateral quickness and inability to change direction swiftly. Doesn't help that he tends to stand upright outside the painted area. Not a shot-changer but does an alright job guarding the post.

Prestes projects to be a reserve center at best, but that's what you're hoping to find in the 2nd round. He could give you some rebounds and the occasional hook shot in the 8-10 minutes per game he's suited for in the NBA.

Other possible 2nd Round Int'l Prospects: Vladimir Dasic (Real Madrid); Thomas Heurtal (Strasbourg/France); Tim Ohlbrecht (Telekom/Germany); Ryan Richards (BBC Monthey/Switz); Ludovic Vaty (Orleans/France)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is Evan Turner An NBA All-Star-Caliber Player?

I was certainly impressed by the Evan Turner narrative over the course of the college basketball season: outstanding production across the board, speedy return from a scary broken back injury, miraculous buzzer-beater in the Big Ten tournament, National Player of the Year.

Turner is widely expected to go to the Sixers at pick no. 2, or to the Nets at no. 3 at the worst, in Thursday's NBA Draft. As such, expectations are high. Nets personnel director Gregg Polinsky called Turner "a guy who can put a team on his back," and my sense is that Turner is generally expected to be an All-Star-caliber player in the league.

After watching several of Turner's games, and also digging further into the details, I am skeptical that he will become an NBA All-Star. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Turner will be a scrub or a bust on the Kwame-Darko-Morrison level. I do think he will be a good player and I wouldn't take him below no. 4, as I think the drop-off in talent after the Big 4 in this draft is pretty steep. I just don't see a lot of evidence of an All-Star.


First of all, I still occasionally hear or read here and there of people who debate whether Wall or Turner deserves to go no. 1, and I think that's absolutely ludicrous. John Wall is, if anything, underrated as a prospect in my mind. Many seem to compare him to Derrick Rose, but I think Wall's potential projects him a clear step above the Chicago PG. While both players are superior athletes for the position, Wall has court vision which far surpasses Rose's.

And, considering that big men with length and mobility are such valuable commodities in the modern game, Derrick Favors is no. 2 on my mythical board even though I find his game disconcertingly raw at times. His tools are still too impressive - I think Favors has the potential to be a thoroughly disruptive defensive force, at the least.

I'd also rate DeMarcus Cousins ahead of Turner on talent, though I could understand if you preferred the Buckeye based on concerns about Cousins's mental makeup. Frankly, what I saw from Jan Vesely in the Euroleague Final Four was more impressive from an NBA potential standpoint than anything I saw from Turner, as well.

What are my concerns with Evan Turner? First and foremost, I'd point to this simple recent quote from Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard in ESPN Magazine: "It's so tough to be a great player if you aren't a great athlete." In watching Turner's game film, I just never saw a guy who is a great athlete, who has the explosiveness or strength which is a trademark of star wing players in the NBA.

To me, Turner needs to compensate for a lack of elite athleticism with other skills and abilities, and certainly, there's plenty to like in his game. Ohio State's offense was basically a pro-style steady diet of high pick-and-rolls, which Turner ran quite well. In general, Turner has a high basketball IQ. His vision and unselfishness as a passer are exceptional for a wing - easily his greatest strength, in my opinion - and the one skill that should ensure he's an asset to whichever team drafts him.

Turner is clever with the ball, employing a variety of spins and other moves, and does a good job keeping his dribble alive, though I do think he can be careless with the ball. A high turnover rate, like Turner had, is often natural for a young player with a high usage rate, and correctable over time, but I feel like Turner commits a lot of bad TOs, often because he lacks strength with the ball.

After shooting 36% on just 55 three-point attempts and with an awkward form, Turner's shooting is often listed as a weakness. While I don't think he'll become Kyle Korver anytime soon, I've been impressed by reports of Turner's excellent work ethic, so I think he can develop into a serviceable outside shooter, as many players do.


On defense, Turner is a solid team defender - smart, versatile and well-positioned. He turns his head a little too much, but that's a minor complaint. I've read a few suggestions that Turner is a "defensive stopper", but I didn't really see it in the Ohio State games I watched. When Manny Harris, a NBA-quality athlete, heated up to nearly give Michigan a comeback win in the game Turner won with his miracle, ET was never called upon to try to shut him down, even in the waning minutes while not in foul trouble.

The profile of NBA wing stoppers are guys with elite length and athleticism, and often with strong bodies like Ron Artest, Tony Allen or (ahem) 76er Andre Iguodala. I just don't see Turner having the physical ability to be a stopper on the NBA level.

Turner also posted outstanding rebounding numbers of 9.2 per game. I'll discuss that in more depth below.

Beyond the straightforward pros & cons of a scouting report, there were a few pieces of context which concerned me as I watched a few of Turner's games.....

When I watched some of Derrick Favors's games, I often felt like there was frustratingly little meaningful data for scouting purposes because that Georgia Tech team was so thoroughly disorganized.

I was surprised to find that Ohio State games also often yielded little meaningful data in terms of projecting Turner's NBA future, though in this case because the competition in the Big Ten stunk so badly in terms of NBA talent.

Turner was a college star for his sophomore (2008-09) and junior (2009-10) years.

Here's the NBA talent in the Big Ten in that time:
• In 2009, the only Big Ten players drafted were OSU teammate B.J. Mullens at 24 and Michigan State's Goran Suton at 50. Mullens was the only Big Ten player to crack David Thorpe's Top 50 Rookie Rankings (he was 45), while Suton played in Russia.

• In 2010, Turner is the only Big Ten player listed in the Draft Express mock draft for Thursday. Chad Ford has the aforementioned Manny Harris going at 52.

I'll note that when I watched the Ohio State-Michigan conference-tournament matchup, I saw the 6-5 Harris matched up on the 6-7 Turner for two possessions. On one, Harris blocked Turner's pull-up jump shot. On the other, Harris bodied Turner up deep in the lane and forced him into a missed shot for an impressive stop. I'm not saying that's definitive. I'm just saying that's pretty much all the meaningful data I got from that entire game, unless you put your stock in Turner nailing 35-foot runners on a consistent basis.

• For 2011, Draft Express has no Big Ten players who played against Turner listed as first-rounders, with Purdue big man JaJuan Johnson and Michigan State guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers tabbed as second-rounders. Chad Ford also has Minnesota's Rodney Williams ranked no. 18, but, as a freshman, Williams played just 10 minutes per game in three matchups vs. Ohio State, and just 11.9 mpg overall.

Turner essentially matched up against zero bonafide NBA players in the last two seasons in the Big Ten. None.

In rare matchups against NBA-quality wings, Turner struggled against West Virginia and players like 6-8 Devin Ebanks and 6-7 Da'Sean Butler in each of the past two seasons:
08-09: 4-17 FG, 10-11-1-3 TO (76-48 L)
09-10: 6-17 FG, 18-11-4-4 TO (71-65 L)

However, I'm reluctant to be too critical of Turner for those games because West Virginia's team defense is so outstanding. Indeed, Huggy's Mountaineers did a similar number on Wall and Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

On top of the deficient competition in conference, I was shocked at how often opponents covered Turner with smaller players. I thought that this gave him physical advantages which are going to disappear in the NBA.

I saw Michigan cover Turner with 6-4 Darius Morris and 6-3 Laval Lucas-Perry as primary defenders, eschewing Harris despite the brief success noted above. Illinois used 6-3 conference Freshman of the Year D.J. Richardson on Turner.

My favorite Big Ten strategy was employed by Minnesota in the conference tournament championship. A report prior to the game said this:
    [Minnesota Coach Tubby] Smith continues to gush about [6-7] senior forward Damian Johnson, who got snubbed from the Big Ten's All-Defense team last week. "Damian Johnson is the most versatile defensive player I've ever coached at any level," Smith said.
After that, Smith proceeded to utilize 6-0 Lawrence Westbrook and 6-3 Devoe Joseph as his primary defenders on Turner! Johnson covered Turner on 7 possessions, and about 4 of those were off scrambles/rebounds/switches rather than by design. Shockingly, Minnesota lost by 29.

The most versatile defender you've ever coached, and you don't use him on the other team's best player! How on Earth does that make any sense?! I can understand that putting a 6-7 guy on the other team's point guard might create mismatches elsewhere in a college game. But I dare say I'd rather deal with the mismatches somewhere other than vs. the National Player of the Year!

[Aside: if the no. 1 reason that college coaches fail in the NBA is that they invariably get stuck with crappy rosters, not far behind at no. 2 is the fact that they woefully fail Matchups 101, the bread-and-butter of an NBA coach's nightly duties. This one was elementary, Tubby. Geez.]

And since I dinged Turner for 2 possessions vs. Harris, fairness dictates that I note he was 1-2 vs. Johnson, including a strong and-1 move in which Turner took a hit and converted.

In general, it seemed a bit meaningless to watch these games where Turner was toying with 6-3 opponents.


In the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee took things a step further and covered Turner with Melvin Goins, a 5-11 player - 5-11! - for 40% of the time. 6-3 Bobby Maze and 6-7 J.P. Prince also each guarded Turner about a quarter of the time.

Prince was an opportunity for an instructive matchup, as he has NBA-quality athleticism and a long, lean body which vaguely resembles that of his cousin Tayshaun. However, with just 15 or so possessions, by my count, the data was again limited.

Turner did hit 4-6 FG (including 2-3 3PT) vs. Prince, but three of those were wide-open shots after Prince got no help in the pick-and-roll. On another play, Prince tipped the ball away from behind and was wide-open for a breakaway... but the ball bounced off of teammate Wayne Chism's face, right into Turner's hands for an easy 15-footer. Prince made a spectacular block on a Turner three which sealed the game, but Turner was off-balance on a desperation attempt. Prince took a charge which should have been a block, and a block which should have been a charge. And Prince did use his length to force Turner into 3 turnovers when matched up against him.

In short, one of the few opportunities to see Turner matched up against an athletic player his size was inconclusive - a mixed bag on a night when Turner's 31 points helped keep Ohio State in the game, and his 6 turnovers helped cost it as well.

In lieu of a dearth of meaningful data, I stick with my instincts, which tell me that Turner is going to struggle to be nearly as productive a scorer when matched up against players at least as big and athletic as him, often more so.

In terms of Turner's impressive rebounding numbers, especially on the defensive boards, a few things gradually caught my eye.

One was that he was the second-tallest player in the Buckeyes lineup, often stationed on the backline on D, and I felt like I rarely saw him grab boards in traffic.

Then, when the Michigan starting lineup was spotlighted, I noticed their heights: 6-3, 6-4, 6-5, 6-5, 6-8. Welcome to NCAA basketball.

Again, I think that size advantages and circumstances really helped Turner rack up the boards.

I had a theory that Gordon Hayward's rebounding numbers were a little inflated because of similar factors - namely, that rebounding numbers for college swingmen are artificially high because of a lack of size in the modern NCAA game - so I was curious to see what the numbers said.

The correlation for all players, minimum 1,000 minutes, for projected NBA rebounding vs. actual rookie rebounding is 87.8%.

For players 6-6 through 6-8, the correlation is 83.6%. But minus the obvious undersized fours such as DeJuan Blair and Paul Millsap, the correlation falls all the way to 70.4%.

Smaller players and bigger players rebound in much closer correlation to what their college rebounding stats project. Mid-sized guys lag, in my opinion because are many fewer big guys in college.

The 6-6 to 6-8 guys who've had the best NBA rebounding percentages are Renaldo Balkman, Al Thornton, Terrence Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Porter, Josh Childress, Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng.

Other than Deng, those all seem like especially athletic guys (I would say Melo is especially strong for his size, if not bouncy).

Again, I feel like Turner is not especially athletic for an NBA swingman, and I feel like the data backs up my hypothesis. I expect Turner's rebounding to tail off quite a bit when he ventures in amongst the NBA trees.

To recap, I have not seen the evidence that Evan Turner is an NBA All-Star-caliber player. I think that sheer size advantages helped him rack up such gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers at Ohio State, though I do believe he will continue to be an elite passer as an NBA swingman, which will be the key to his value as an NBA player, in my opinion.

I do not believe that Turner has the body to be an NBA All-Star, though I'm a little frustrated that there's so little meaningful data to go off of, based on his continual matchups against 6-3 guys in a weak Big Ten.

And hey, I'm not gonna lie, the Brandon Roy factor is in the back of my head. The players are very similar in many, many ways. Both players played with a high IQ in college, their NCAA stats were similar, and their combine body measurements were incredibly similar. Their athletic testing numbers were also scarily close, with the key difference being a 6-inch edge in vertical jump for Roy.

I do believe that Roy is more explosive in the lane than Turner, and has also always been much better at taking care of the ball. But Roy and Turner have so many similarities at face value that I don't dismiss Turner out of hand.

I don't find it implausible that Evan Turner could become an NBA All-Star. Again, I just haven't seen the evidence that he is NBA All-Star-caliber, and I'm going to stick to my guns and say that I don't think he will become an All-Star. Not a bust, just not an All-Star or a franchise player in the way I believe John Wall will be.

I know, I know, how dare I say such things about an NCAA Player of the Year. But we've seen it time and time before, and we'll see it again: stardom in college basketball does not necessarily translate to stardom in the NBA.


I believe that Andre Iguodala is possibly the most underrated player in the league, especially because of his defensive abilities, which I believe new Sixers coach Doug Collins could exploit quite well.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Sixers will look to trade Iguodala if and when they draft Turner, as the two are fairly duplicative. To be perfectly honest, I'd rather have Iguodala.

I would draft Derrick Favors, which would give Philly a frightening trio of potential All-NBA Defensive Team players in Jrue Holiday, Iguodala and Favors. It might take longer to develop, but I think that course of action has far greater upside for the Sixers than drafting Turner and shedding Iggy. We gonna see.

Enjoy the Draft, everyone. Huge hat tip to Sebastian Pruiti of the outstanding sites NBA Playbook and Nets Are Scorching for helping me track down extra Turner game video.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

International 1st Round Prospects: Scouting Tibor Pleiss and Kevin Seraphin

Like last year, the pool of viable international draft prospects is rather shallow. When Jan Vesely and Donatas Motiejunas passed on this year's NBA Draft, the field of int'l 1st round candidates dwindled further.

Below we take a look at two possible int'l first round prospects, Tibor Pleiss and Kevin Seraphin. Neither player is likely lottery-bound and both European bigs project to be chosen in the late 1st/early 2nd round. And after watching these guys multiple times, we agree Pleiss and Seraphin are correctly pegged as late 1st round material.

Tibor Pleiss
Brose Baskets Bamberg (German League/Bundesliga)
7-0 Center
20 Years Old

Pleiss just recently wrapped up his 2009-10 season in fine fashion by helping his team to a German League (Bundesliga) title. Brose defeated Deutsche Bank 3-2 in the final round, and Pleiss was a key contributor to the title run. Tibor had 10 pts, 12 rebs & 2 blks in the deciding Game 5 and averaged 6.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg & 1.4 bpg in 22 mins per for the series.

In 45 Bundesliga games this season, Tibor averaged 8 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.3 bpg and 57% shooting in 19 mins per game (he put up nearly identical stats in Brose's 14 EuroCup games).

An average athlete for a center in Europe, but probably a subpar athlete for NBA. However, moves well enough that he shouldn't be a major liability. Does get pushed off his spots a little and needs to add strength. But does have a frame that can definitely handle more muscle.

Pleiss' offensive game is a work in progress. Casey Jacobsen is Brose's main option, so Tibor doesn't get his number called that often. Has to look for most of his offense moving to open spots off the ball. In general, a pretty good finisher when receiving passes close to the basket. Good hands and shows ability to catch on the move & finish in one motion.

Not much of a post game at this point. Likes to try a sweeping righty hook on occasion but his footwork is not highly developed right now, so this leads to awkward attempts.

The strength of his offensive game has to be his jump shot. Showcases a nice balanced jumper that he can take out to 18 feet. Looks like he could be effective in pick/pop action in the NBA. Interesting to see if he can take his jumper out a few more feet and become a threat like Okur or Frye. Though, currently Pleiss doesn't get much of legs into his shot.

Solid pick/roll defender and a terrific shot-blocker (2nd best in Bundesliga). He seems to recover well to get many shots from behind. Excellent rebounder.

Tibor is definitely a few years away from being NBA-ready and have to imagine he will be a stash pick. Not sure he's starting-caliber center in the NBA but has the skills to be at least a quality reserve. If he works on his post game and his body, a starting spot could be in his future because his shooting, rebounding, shot-blocking and hands are already quality.

Kevin Seraphin
Cholet (French Pro A League/LNB)
6-9 PF/C
20 Years Old

The first thing you notice about Seraphin is his thick frame. When initially watching him, had to do a few double-takes because it seemed I was watching a 30-year-old veteran. He's built like a man, not a developing 20-year-old (so much so that you wonder if his birth certificate is fudged). The kid ain't roly-poly either--he's tightly packed onto his frame.

Not quite on the level of Derrick Favors athletically but still very good. Combine an athletic, bulky build with long arms (9-1 standing reach) and you start to understand why NBA front offices are intrigued. Puts his long arms to good use as a strong rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass--averaged 2 off. rpg in only 15 mins/game.

Cholet won the French Pro A (LNB) title but Seraphin missed the last few games with a knee injury. Seraphin would usually start but only averaged roughly 15 minutes a game. In 32 LNB games this season, Kevin averaged 6 ppg on 53%, 4.2 rpg & 1 bpg.

Still has a lot of rough edges to his game that need to be sanded down. Seems to be still figuring out the nuances of the game on the fly. Has very little in the way of ball-handling or passing skills.

Like Pleiss, his post game is fairly limited right now. He does sometimes unleash a nice righty hook on the left block that looks fluid. Also, can be effective with a drop-step on the left block. Just don't expect any smooth countermoves or sweet turnaround jumpers on the block. Really likes to try to finish with hooks around the basket as much as possible. He's not comfortable with shooting jumpers on his post moves.

Not much of a threat when facing the basket. Has some excess motion in his shot, not quite as elaborate as Marcus Camby or Bill Cartwright, but his awkward mechanics kind of remind you of those guys. No surprise he has difficulties from the free throw line--56% in the LNB.

Not quite as good a finisher as one would hope. By no means a bad finisher, just expected him to be more dominant with his great physical skills. Sometimes does not go up with enough force.

He seems like he does not fully realize the physical advantages at his disposal. He does not power through guys as much as he should. Does not affect the game at the defensive end as much as he could either. He's not a bad defender--effective guarding his man in the post--just wish he showed more signs of being a consistent disruptive force. Basically, needs to learn how to use his body to his advantage.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lakers Win Championship #16: Fisher to the Rafters? Gasol to the Hall?

Another NBA season is in the books after a dramatic and intense Game 7 which saw the Los Angeles Lakers prevail over the Boston Celtics 83-79. Congratulations to the Lakers for pulling within one title of the Celtics for all-time NBA supremacy. The Lakers now have 16 championships as a franchise, 11 since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, and 10 in the distinguished reign of owner Jerry Buss, who bought the team in 1979.

Certainly, in terms of individual legacies, the big story is Kobe Bryant winning his fifth championship. Kobe is now one of 26 NBA players with five rings or more, and one of 5 NBA MVP award winners to win at least five titles (joining Russell, Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar and Cousy, with an asterisk for Mikan, who played before the MVP was awarded).

Considering that Kobe's legacy seems to be getting just a little bit of coverage, we'd like to focus on the legacies of a couple other key Lakers in the wake of their championship.

After being written off following a bad regular season, Derek Fisher stepped up his play in the postseason yet again, delivering clutch shots in key games of every series, right down to the game-tying three-pointer he hit after shaking off a leg injury in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Doc Rivers called it "the biggest single shot in the game" and Phil Jackson called it "the real play... that kind of changed and gave us that renewed energy."

So, after winning five championships in 11 seasons with the Lakers, serving as the classy team leader and hitting some of the most memorable shots in franchise history, it's a no-brainer that Fish's #2 will be retired, right? Well, for 28... maybe even 29 NBA franchises, there wouldn't even be a question, but the Los Angeles Lakers have the most daunting, exclusive collection of retired jerseys in the league.

For discussion purposes, let's not even include the five Minneapolis Lakers players who are honored at Staples Center (George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen, Slater Martin, Clyde Lovellette), all of whom are enshrined in Springfield.

Let's just focus on the L.A. Lakers players with retired numbers. There are seven, and all are Hall of Famers as well:
    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    • Elgin Baylor
    • Wilt Chamberlain
    • Gail Goodrich
    • Magic Johnson
    • Jerry West
    • James Worthy
Let's also assume that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal will eventually see their jerseys raised to the rafters. That's two more Hall of Famers, a standard that Fisher certainly falls far short of.

Let's take a look at the Lakers-only statistics for these nine players, sorted by points scored in a Lakers uniform (CH = Championships, AS = All-Star Games):
Kobe 14 5 12 1021 25790 5410 4766
West 14 1 14 932 25192 5366 6238
Kareem 14 5 13 1093 24176 10279 3652
Baylor 14 0 11 846 23149 11463 3650
Magic 13 5 12 906 17707 6559 10141
Worthy 12 3 7 926 16320 4708 2791
Shaq 8 3 7 514 13895 6090 1593
Goodrich 9 1 4 687 13044 2081 2863
Wilt 5 1 4 339 5985 6524 1461
Kobe 25.1 5.3 4.7
West 27.0 5.8 6.7
Kareem 22.1 9.4 3.3
Baylor 27.4 13.5 4.3
Magic 19.5 7.2 11.2
Worthy 17.6 5.1 3.0
Shaq 27.0 11.8 3.1
Goodrich 19.0 3.0 4.2
Wilt 17.7 19.2 4.3
Indeed, those are the top 8 all-time L.A. Lakers scorers, plus Wilt, who ranks 16th.

Now here's a snapshot of the players I would rank in the next tier of retired jersey candidates:
PLAYER         YR CH AS    G   PTS   REB   AST
Byron Scott 11 3 0 846 12780 2534 2365
Jamaal Wilkes 8 3 2 575 10601 3119 1474
Norm Nixon 6 2 1 485 7938 1312 3846
A.C. Green 9 3 1 735 7789 5632 808
M. Cooper 12 5 0 873 7729 2769 3666
Derek Fisher 11 5 0 790 6413 1648 2319
Byron Scott 15.1 3.0 2.8
Jamaal Wilkes 18.4 5.4 2.6
Norm Nixon 16.4 2.7 7.9
A.C. Green 10.6 7.7 1.1
M. Cooper 8.9 3.2 4.2
Derek Fisher 8.1 2.1 2.9
I'm trying to tread lightly in terms of who should have their jersey retired. I'm not a Lakers fan, so I don't think that's my place.

That said, by the statistical standards, Fisher seems to fall well short. Even though he's played 11 seasons as a Laker point guard, Fisher ranks only 12th in total assists. Even Cooper, whose numbers are most comparable on the lower end, has the additional cachet as an excellent defender - he was the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year in 1986-87.

Of course, with all the intangibles and clutch shots, the key statistic for Derek Fisher is his five championships. Only five L.A. Lakers own that many rings; no one has won more of them, as a Laker.

It's certainly remarkable, sitting here on championship night, to think that Derek Fisher's number 2 might not be retired. I'd argue that 28 other teams would do so in a heartbeat. The Blazers, with one franchise championship, have retired 10 player numbers in 40 years. The Suns, with no titles, have retired 9 in 42 years. The Celtics, even with their hallowed rafters filled with 20 players, are the only other team that would be a question mark.

Yet it's also hard to believe that, if Derek Fisher is worthy of being immortalized by Laker Nation, that at least Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and Jamaal Wilkes, and possibly A.C. Green, aren't equally deserving of the honor. I guess that's why it's probably good to wait a few years for a different historical perspective, and to get away from the emotion of the championship moment.

What do Lakers fans think? Should the standards be changed? Should no one else wear Fish's #2? What about Coop, Silk and B-Scott?

The use of the word "soft" in any vicinity near Pau Gasol's name should now be officially forbidden, following his Game 7 performance of 19 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, including several tough key plays down the stretch. Gasol averaged 18.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.6 blocks for the NBA Finals, to officially erase any lingering demons from the 2008 defeat to the Celtics.

Last September, after Spain won the 2009 EuroBasket, we ran a story in this space which included this sentence: "Now, it's not crazy to say that Pau Gasol may be headed on a path to the Basketball Hall of Fame."

The essential site Basketball Reference has a feature called Hall of Fame Probability, which measures the likelihood of whether a player will be voted into the Hall of Fame, based on a few key variables, compared with those already enshrined. (Note that this is a measure of who is likely to be hall-worthy, not necessarily who should be.)

Gasol is currently displayed with a Hall of Fame probability of 23.61%. My calculations show that the second championship will give Pau a boost all the way up to 43.86%.

While that still may seem like a fairly low number, consider two other variables. First, take a look at where 43.86% will place Pau on the all-time list. Ironically, Gasol now has almost the same probability as Joe Dumars (43.84%), who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. The top line of their resumes is pretty much the same: they were both considered the second-best players on two-time championship teams. The Hall has been especially kind to supporting players who've won multiple titles, with those rings outweighing lesser statistical achievements or awards.

Second, the Hall of Fame has carved out special recognition for international players in recent years. As we noted in September:
    Considering international players has been another area in which the Hall of Fame has shown absolutely zero foresight in terms of the precedents they were setting. From 2002-2004, they inducted one male international player per year – Drazen Petrovic, Dino Meneghin, and Drazen Dalipagic, respectively. All are clear legends of international basketball, and we respect them.

    However, by these standards, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Sarunas Marciulionis and Sarunas Jasikevicius, among others, are all Hall of Famers. It's as if absolutely no thought was put into what it would mean to start enshrining international players in an era when they were entering the NBA en masse.
So it's not necessarily a precedent we agree with, but it's a precedent nonetheless. And as the leader of a Spanish team which has won a World title (2006), a European title (2009) and an Olympic silver (2008), Pau Gasol unquestionably has been one of the premier FIBA players of this era.

Folks, Pau Gasol has not only officially shed the "soft" label, but also based on past precedent, he is now a Hall of Famer, especially considering that he is 29 years old, and will have more chances to add rings, numbers and All-Star Games.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Caja Laboral Completes Shocking Sweep of Barcelona

Fernando San Emeterio, who had only scored three points up until the last five seconds of the game, came through with maybe the biggest play in Baskonia (Caja Laboral) history.

After a Gianluca Basile missed free throw with 7.5 secs left in OT, San Emerterio quickly isolated Basile up high, drove left and finished on the right side as Terrence Morris fouled him. Then San Emeterio calmly nailed his free throw with .5 secs left to give Caja a 79-78 lead. Barca's desperation heave was for naught. Game over, Caja 79, Barca 78 (OT). Series over, Caja wins the 2010 ACB Finals 3-0.

Caja completes a stunning sweep of the most dominant team in Europe this season. Barca was such an overwhelming fave that just one win for Caja was unlikely. It's not just that Barcelona was a combined 56-5 (ACB + Euro) before the finals, it was the fact they dominated their competition throughout Europe all year--basically outscoring their opponents by an average of +15 ppg.

Barcelona's status as one of the premier European teams of all-time takes a massive hit with no ACB Finals title on their resume. And the 2009-10 Caja club should be remembered as one of the biggest giant-killers of all-time.

This improbable series ended in crazy fashion. Caja was up five points with a minute left in regulation, but Barca was able to force OT thanks to a questionable non-call on a possible goaltending on Caja's last second attempt.

Thought Caja put the game away for good in the 4th when Pau Ribas hit a left corner 3pt. that put them up 66-61 with a minute left. But Barca responded immediately with Navarro drilling an off-balance 3pt. off a down screen and drawing the foul. Ricky Rubio made a great feed in transition to a trailing Morris that tied the game with :30 left in regulation.

Should have this game even been in overtime? Not positive, but it looked like Morris got Lior Eliyahu's last second shot on the way down.

After falling behind early in OT thanks to multiple TOs, Rubio hit a corner 3pt. that gave Barca a 75-70 lead with 1:30 in OT. Caja's Mirza Teletovic scored six points of his eight points in the last minute to pull Caja within 77-76 with 10 secs left. Barca's Gianluca Basile was fouled with 7.5 secs left but the normally sweet-shooter only made 1-of-2, making the score 78-76. Then, San Emeterio grabbed the missed FT and finished off Barca's season.

Caja's tremendous defensive effort was the key to the series and was key to the Game 3 victory. We think our take from Tuesday's post sums up what happened in Game 3 and in this series:

    The main reason the script is flipped in this series has to be Caja's defensive play. Barca's pick/roll action has been smothered, the help and recovery has been textbook and it seems as if every shot by Barca has been contested. Also, they've done a nice job defending JC Navarro off the phalanx of screens run for him. They're doing the same things they did in the semis vs. Real Madrid. Just surprised the defense is having the same effect on Barca.

For the third game in row, Barca struggled to knock down their 3pt. looks--7-for-30 from deep. Caja never let Barca shoot better than 31% on 3PA in any of the three games and held them to 26% 3pt. shooting overall for the series. Barca was renowned for their spacing and came into this series shooting 39% from behind the arc.

In Game 3, Barca managed to shot 43% from the floor, their best percentage of the three games. Pete Mickeal was Barca main source of offense in the 1st half scoring most of his 16 pts in the half. Barca was able to get out in transition a little more than they did in the first two games. But for the most part, Caja's transition defense was solid again.

Caja did a terrific job holding Barca to 39% overall for the series--Barca came into the series shooting 50% from the field. Caja stifled one of the most efficient offenses in Europe and one of the most dangerous scorers in Europe, JC Navarro.

Navarro finished with 18 pts but once again had to work very hard for his scoring opportunities. Juan was 5-for-15 from the field and 3-for-9 from distance. In the Finals, Navarro only shot 32% from the field, 29% from 3pt. land. Juan came into this series shooting 46% overall, 39% from deep.

Barca started off OT with three straight TOs, including a charge that disqualified Mickeal with his 5th foul. Barca started off the 4th with two straight TOs after they had taken a one-point lead at the end of the 3rd. But Barca managed to grab a five -point with about a minute left but frittered it away. Have to say Barca's late game execution throughout the series left a lot to be desired.

For the second game in a row, liked Rubio's aggression on the offensive end. Ricky played his best game of the series with 14 pts, 8 rebs, 5 stls & 4 assts. Ricky only had six assists in the series and shot 2-for-10 on 3PA. But give Ricky credit for looking to score in the last two games, something he's been reluctant to do this season.

Lior Eliyahu (Rockets hold rights) had been rather ineffective this season because of injuries but was huge for Caja on Tuesday. Lior scored all of his 18 pts inside 10 feet on lay-ins and flick shots a la Antawn Jamison. Eliyahu did a nice job finding open space and even added two nice scores off of left-block post-ups. Walter Herrmann came off the bench to give Caja his usual activity/toughness that resulted with seven points, six rebs and some drawn fouls.

Tiago Splitter was the best player on floor in Game 3 with a sweet stat line of 14 pts, 13 rebs (4 off.), 4 assts, 4 stls & 2 blks. Splitter came up huge in the OT period with one of his patented hooks, a tip-in off one of his misses and stepped up to take a charge on Pete Mickeal that fouled him out.

Tiago was effective scoring down low on lay-ins and hooks with both hands, not to mention he tossed a few touch passes into the mix. His defense in screen action was superb as usual and he did another fine job on Erazem Lorbek.

Tiago was rightfully named Finals MVP, though Huertas and San Emeterio were ballin' as well in this series. This series solidified our opinion that Tiago is the best all-around big outside the NBA and should have little difficulty transitioning to the NBA.

Hat tip to Caja coach Dusko Ivanovic for putting together a stellar gameplan (particularly on defensive end) and getting his team to play at such a high level. Ivanovic's team just pulled off one of the bigger upsets pro basketball has seen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Can the Lakers Get Shots At the Rim?

It's a bit of a coarse statistical analysis, but one of the key barometers for how the Los Angeles Lakers have played in the 2010 NBA Playoffs has been a comparison of their field-goal attempts at the rim vs. three-point field-goal attempts, data which is available courtesy of Hoopdata.

In the NBA Finals, the Lakers' finest performance was in Game 1, a 102-89 win in which they made the Celtics look like the feeble regular-season version of themselves. In that game, the Lakers dominated the paint. As part of that dominance, L.A. was 19-34 in shots taken at the rim, and 4-10 on three-pointers.

Since Game 1, L.A. has averaged just 18 attempts at the rim, against 19 three-pointers per game. This relates to something we touched upon in our post on Lakers-Suns shot location data: the Lakers have fared much better in these playoffs when they have maximized shots at the rim.

- When L.A. has had 30 or more "At Rim" FGA, they are 8-0 in the playoffs.
- When L.A. has had fewer than 30 "At Rim" FGA, they are 6-7 in the playoffs.


In the Finals, the Lakers have attempted more "At Rim" FGA than three-pointers in Games 1 and 3 (their two wins) and more threes than "At Rim" FGA in each of their three losses. This continues a trend for the playoffs:

- When L.A. has attempted more "At Rim" FGA than 3PA, they are 10-1 in the playoffs.
- When L.A. has attempted fewer "At Rim" FGA than 3PA, they are 4-6 in the playoffs.


Against the Celtics, the Lakers are down significantly in "At Rim" FGA compared to their previous playoff series and the regular season:
v BOS 12.4 21.2 .585
v PHX 16.0 25.3 .632
v UTH 18.5 28.5 .649
v OKC 14.8 25.3 .586
09-10 15.8 26.6 .594

And remember again that the vs. Boston numbers are including a 34 "At Rim" FGA performance in Game 1, and since then, the Lakers have averaged 18.0 "At Rim" FGA in going 1-3.


Of course, the "At Rim" FGA statistic tracks particularly close to another important stat - offensive rebounding - which we noted after a dominant Laker performance on the O-boards in Game 1.

Still, the Lakers made a dedicated effort to get the ball to the basket in Game 1, but since then, they have settled for more outside shots, and Boston has also done a good job of shutting down driving lanes in their wins.

Kobe Bryant's numbers are indicative: in Game 1, he was 5-10 in "At Rim" FGA. In the four games since, he is 5-7 in "At Rim" FGA combined.

Meanwhile, Kobe's shooting on Long 2's (16-23 feet) has settled back down, after his blistering performance vs. the Suns (though his 3-point shooting has still been solid at .378, compared to .329 on the season):
v BOS 2.6 7.2 .361
v PHX 4.8 8.3 .580
v OK/UT 1.8 5.1 .353
09-10 2.5 6.0 .415


Another factor in the Lakers struggles' to get shots at the rim has been the declining effectiveness of Andrew Bynum over the course of the series.

In the first 3 games, Bynum was 9-16 at the rim in 32 mpg. But in Games 4 and 5 combined, he was just 2-2 at the rim, in 22 mpg.

Especially with Bynum increasingly hobbled, L.A. desperately needs more production from Lamar Odom.

Odom has actually been effective when he's gotten to the basket, a perfect 9-9 at the rim in the series.

However, he's just gotten there infrequently, as that equates to 1.8 FGA at the rim, down from 4.0 "At Rim" FGA" over the course of the season.
v BOS 1.8 1.8 1.000
09-10 2.3 4.0 .585


Whether through offensive rebounding, a more dedicated inside-out attack, a more determined Kobe Bryant, or an awakened Lamar Odom, it certainly appears that the Los Angeles Lakers need to get the ball to the rim one way or another if they want to rally from a 3-2 series deficit and repeat as NBA champions.

Caja Laboral One Win Away From Historic Upset

Well, we did predict a sweep in this series.... Caja Laboral is up 2-0 on FC Barcelona in the best-of-five ACB Finals series in the Spanish League. Not hyperbole to say this is a stunning development.

As the road team, Caja Laboral won Game 1, 63-58, and held on for a 70-69 win in Game 2. Barcelona had not lost a game at home since January. January of 2009. An ACB title would have solidified Barcelona's standing as one of the best European teams ever. Now Barca's dream season is circling the drain.

The series shifts to Vitoria, where Caja has two chances at home to pull off the improbable upset. Game 3 is slated for 2:30 est on Tuesday, Game 4 on Thursday, if necessary, both available online through

Barca came into this series winning 36 of its 39 ACB games this season (Barca beat Unicaja 3-0 in the semis after sweeping Gran Canaria in the quarters). Barca finished their Euroleague campaign with a 20-2 record.

Barca was such an overwhelming fave that Caja just winning one game was unlikely. It's not just that Barcelona was a combined 56-5 before the finals, it was the fact they dominated their competition throughout Europe all year--basically outscoring their opponents by an average of +15 ppg.

The main reason the script is flipped in this series has to be Caja's defensive play. Barca's pick/roll action has been smothered, the help and recovery has been textbook and it seems as if every shot by Barca has been contested. Also, they've done a nice job defending JC Navarro off the phalanx of screens run for him. They're doing the same things they did in the semis vs. Real Madrid. Just surprised the defense is having the same effect on Barca.

Barca has shot only 38% from the floor in both games. Barca averaged 80 ppg on 50% during the ACB regular season. Also, Barca is struggling from long range partly because of Caja's close-out ability. Only 13-for-47 (28%) from deep after hitting 38% of their 3PA in the reg. season.

In both games, Barca had a lead of at least seven points late in the 3rd, but Caja's strong defense never let Barca pull away. And Caja's offense found ways to execute down the stretch, while Barca came up empty. Barca really rushed things on offense in both games ending up with costly TOs or forced shots. You wonder if Barca reacted poorly because they are not used to having to pull games out in the final minutes.

In Game 2, Tiago Splitter was not much of a factor on the offensive end (4 pts) but once again was a deterrent defensively. Changed plenty of Barca shots and was terrific on pick/rolls as usual. Tiago was strong in Game 1 with 14 pts and a few nice post moves.

In Game 2, Brad Oleson did a great job getting around screens to cut off Navarro's space all game. Caja would jump hard on Navarro ball screens with a big, then would scurry to help the helper. Caja has done a tremendous job making Navarro work extremely hard to get open looks in both games. Navarro only managed to get up four shots in Game 2 to finish with four points. Navarro put up 17 pts in Game 1 but did it on 5-for-15 shooting.

Ricky Rubio's pattern of uneven play this season has continued in this series. Ricky was a total non-factor in Game 1. Only has two assists total in both games and is 1-for-7 from the 3pt. arc. Actually liked Rubio's aggression on offense in Game 2--seemed to be visibly amped up from the start. Made three tough, determined drives to score his six points. Ricky has tried to push the ball but Caja's transition defense has been superb.

Rubio can't consistently probe the defense because of Splitter's presence, not to mention Marcelinho Huertas' relentless ball pressure. Huertas' active on-ball defense has been effective, like it was in the semis vs. Real.

Huertas usually looks to get his teammates the ball before looking for his own shot, but he has been providing a key scoring pop in this series. Huertas put up 11 pts in Game 1 and 13 pts in Game 2. Also, in both games, Huertas hit huge pull-up 3pters. late in the 4th that gave Caja two-possession leads.

Fernando San Emeterio has helped with some big baskets of his own (10 pts in Game 1, 19 pts in Game 2). The Caja SF has provided scoring on post-ups, drives and jumpers. Hit a couple big 3pts. in the 2nd half in Game 2 and converted a crucial drive off a high pick/roll to give Caja the lead for good with 3:40 remaining.

We understand Celts-Lakers takes priority for many in our audience on Tuesday. But if you have some free time before Game 6, check out Game 3 of the ACB Finals on live (2:30 est) or on replay (revivelo).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Wizard of Westwood and the Search for a Multi-Dimensional John Wooden

The basketball world has been mourning one of its true giants of the 20th century, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, who passed away a week ago in Los Angeles.

Since Wooden retired in 1975 following his remarkable run of 10 national championships in 12 years, I feel as though the image of the man has become simplistic. Wooden has inevitably been portrayed as the wise, puritanical grandfather of the sports world - there to dispense pithy guidelines for life as well as sport, in the form of aphorism, pyramid, or book upon book.

I am interested in a fuller portrait of the man - a more multi-dimensional view of Wooden as a human being - and I've been pleased to find several thorough and enlightening takes amidst the flood of the coverage in the wake of the coach's death.

But, for the fullest picture, over the last week I read the 1973 book The Wizard of Westwood: Coach John Wooden and His UCLA Bruins (by Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, who covered the UCLA program in the Wooden era for the Los Angeles Times), which is still considered to be the most definitive biographical take on Wooden (indeed, one recent Wooden remembrance which will go unnamed seemed to be a paraphrasing of a section of this 37-year-old book).

The use of "The Wizard of Westwood" as a Wooden nickname actually stems from this book. It is a moniker which Wooden never liked, probably in part because of the controversy stirred up by the book.

Yes, there are plenty of quotes and vignettes in The Wizard of Westwood which could be considered unflattering to Wooden and the UCLA program, but if I had to compare it to another book, I'd say it's fairly similar to The Jordan Rules (by Sam Smith).

First and foremost in both books, it was welcome to see the protagonists portrayed as human beings, with human strengths and weaknesses, rather than as deities to be worshiped. Wooden and Jordan were ultimately portrayed in a quite positive light in the big picture of these respective books, despite the flaws revealed in the details along the way. An admiration for Wooden clearly shines through in a full reading of The Wizard of Westwood.

Make no mistake, in Chapin and Prugh's portrayal, Wooden the man is filled with every bit as much decency and rectitude as the common image suggests. There is no argument against the idea that Wooden was a good man and a great coach. It's in Wooden's relations with his players and the UCLA basketball program as a whole that things become more complex, and the authors do a fine job of exploring questions from all angles.


After a intro section, The Wizard of Westwood is broken into three main sections:
1. A recounting of Wooden's early years in Indiana, including his time as a superstar player of his day, as well as his days as a young coach at a couple high schools and Indiana State.
2. An extensive and engaging season-by-season narrative of Wooden's UCLA years from 1948-49 all the way up to 1972-73.
3. Portraits of four men who were key influences on Wooden's UCLA years in disparate ways, followed by reflections of a cross-section of three former Wooden players from UCLA.

A couple things stood out to me in general. One was that I was surprised at how much pressure Wooden was continually under to keep winning even in the midst of one of the greatest runs in American sports history. There is a famous story which postdates the book, in which a fan congratulates Wooden after his final championship in 1975 by saying, "Great win coach, this makes up for letting us down last year". Note that UCLA had lost to N.C. State in double OT in the 1974 national semis after a run of seven straight national championships. The burden of high expectations year after year clearly comes through in the book.

Second, a recurring question about Wooden throughout the late-60s and 70s was whether he had trouble relating to his players, especially as his old-fashioned morals increasingly diverged with the social upheaval of that era.

It's a bit startling in the initial pages of the book to read about a couple times when the 1971 season seemed to be slipping away, with Wooden scolding his team in moralistic terms in time-out huddles, saying things like "You're nothing but a bunch of All-American woman chasers and hopheads!" and "It's not your fault but you've given in to a permissive society. You've lost the conference race and a chance at a national championship."

After that intro section, The Wizard of Westwood settles into the engaging sections of biography on Wooden and his UCLA teams, and then the book really picks up in intrigue once it hits the section on the four key men of his UCLA era. They were:

- Pete Newell: Best known in recent years for his summer "Big Man Camps" frequented by all kinds of prominent players, Newell was Wooden's "bitter nemesis" while coaching at Cal in the '50s. Before Wooden established his dynasty, Newell's Cal Bears beat UCLA 8 straight times in the late '50s. Wooden is quoted in the book saying, "I believe [Newell] helped me become a better coach."

- Jerry Norman: Norman was a figure I had not previously heard of, an assistant coach who was hugely influential in the development of the UCLA dynasty for two key reasons. One was recruiting, something that Wooden hated. When Norman arrived in 1957, the UCLA recruiting budget was $150. Norman overhauled the recruiting efforts in a major way, and was the lead recruiter for UCLA's championship teams of the '60s before leaving to become a stockbroker in 1968.

Two was convincing Wooden to institute a full-court 2-2-1 zone press which was instrumental in UCLA's first national championship in 1964, when the Bruins didn't start a player over 6-5. Prior to this, Wooden, with his fast-breaking teams, was known primarily as an offensive specialist.

- J.D. Morgan: Morgan was the hard-driving athletic director who came on board in 1963 and vastly increased the athletics budget. Morgan was able to increase staffing, taking administrative duties off of Wooden's plate while adding full-time assistants to help with recruiting and scouting, allowing Wooden to focus on coaching. Pauley Pavilion was also completed under Morgan's watch. When opened in 1965, Pauley was a true state-of-the-art arena.

- Sam Gilbert: Controversial figure Gilbert was first introduced to the world in depth by The Wizard of Westwood in 1973. I already knew about Gilbert's role in lavishing the UCLA players of this era with gifts and money, which has been well-documented. But until reading this book, I hadn't known that Gilbert was possibly even more influential as a mentor and confidant. One quote says, "A source close to the team said, 'Most players are much closer to Gilbert than Wooden.'" The opening vignette on Gilbert describes his offices and how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) could be found there writing papers on some Sunday nights.

Willie Naulls was Wooden's first All-American at UCLA, in the mid-50s, and he was instrumental in steering players to Gilbert. Naulls is quoted in the book saying,
    "[Sam]'s very close to them. He's stabilized a lot of them. When they really have problems, most of them have either come to me and I've sent them to Sam, or they've gone directly to Sam.
    When a boy leaves home for the first time, his coach becomes a father figure, a guy you should be able to go to with your problems and your questions. With Wooden, you don't feel you can do this."
In his autobiography Giant Steps, Kareem called Gilbert "a very valuable and influential friend to me.... We talked for hours about the things that really mattered: racism, socialism, the human condition, sex."

What's also noted repeatedly in the book is that Gilbert was particularly involved in mentoring UCLA's black players. Wooden himself is quoted in the book as saying, "I think he means very well, and for the most part, he has attached himself to the minority-race players. I really don't want to get involved in saying much about that, to be honest with you."

Wooden's ability to relate to black players was an issue which had already been aired publicly. A Sports Illustrated story from November, 1970 delved into the topic. Mike Warren, starting guard in the Alcindor years, was quoted as saying:
    "His relationships with blacks have no meaning. The coaching staff was seriously interested only in us playing, studying and keeping out of trouble. Our individual progress in terms of maturing as black men was of no concern. It's all superficial, the same kind of dialogue every day."

    At the end of his sophomore year, Warren was called in by Wooden and confronted about his dating a white girl. Wooden told Warren he had received threatening phone calls and that Warren was doing the wrong thing.

    "I would discourage anybody from interracial dating," says Wooden today. "I imagine whites would have trouble dating in an Oriental society, too. It's asking for trouble. But I've never told a player who he could or couldn't date."

    "He didn't stop me," smiles Warren. "But, man, how about telling me my life is in danger? How's that for a hint?"
It's important to note that Wooden's perceived inability to relate to black players was a product of rapidly changing times rather than racism. As ex-player Freddie Goss said in the book, "It's an age thing mainly, not a racial thing."

Indeed, Wooden's on-court record on racial issues was progressive all the way through his coaching career. At Indiana State in 1948, he pulled his team out of a postseason tournament in Kansas City because his lone black player would not have been allowed to play. As The Wizard of Westwood says:
    "Wooden, despite the talk about lack of relating, has escaped most of the racial problems that have plagued many other coaches throughout the nation. He has had black players at South Bend Central [H.S., in the '30s], at Indiana State, and almost from the start at UCLA - at a time, in fact, when practically no Pacific Coast Conference teams played blacks."
As Curtis Rowe, a star on the early '70s championship teams said, "Coach Wooden sees basketball players. He doesn't see color."

In The Breaks of the Game, widely considered to be the best basketball book ever written, David Halberstam devoted a handful of pages to Wooden, and described this particular issue like so:
    "To some of these modern young men, black children of the California ghettos in the rising consciousness of the fifties and sixties, Wooden occasionally seemed to be a bit of an old lady, a little conservative. Indeed, some of the blacks resented him just a little, thinking him reluctant to deal with them as whole men. It was Martinsville, Indiana, of the twenties talking to Watts of the seventies."
Perhaps Fred Slaughter, a black ex-player who was center of UCLA's first national championship team in 1964, summed up the full picture best in The Wizard of Westwood:
    "There is no perfect place for a black athlete, but if a black kid wants to get his game together for the pros, this is the best place to come. Coach Wooden is a product of his experience and background and he relates to the blacks as well as his background lets him. That's better than most.

    I don't believe he has ever been openly prejudiced or discriminatory; he just doesn't understand the black man in terms of social values, needs, and moods. I believe he matured quite a bit in this area, though, during Kareem Jabbar's years here."

Ah yes, Kareem, known as Lew Alcindor while at UCLA, was a unique case all onto himself. The book says that "he was never close but had a cordial relationship" with Wooden while at UCLA. After speaking with the press minimally at UCLA, Alcindor wrote an extraordinary three-part autobiographical series which appeared in Sports Illustrated as he entered the NBA in late 1969. Notably, one of the stories was entitled "UCLA Was A Mistake". Here are links to all three stories, which are truly fascinating snapshots of the black athlete in the late '60s and highly recommended:

- Part I: My Story
- Part II: UCLA Was A Mistake
- Part III: A Year of Turmoil and Decision

First of all, it's worth noting that the "UCLA Was A Mistake" story has a subhead of "The basketball was fine, says Lew, but campus conditions almost impelled him to quit school." He notes in the story, and was quoted elsewhere saying, that he would have gone to Michigan if he could do it over again, and considered transferring there at one point.

Second, his views on Wooden were complex, and fairly consistent with the conclusions of The Wizard of Westwood: Great basketball coach, good man, but sometimes had trouble relating to players. As he wrote in the third installment:
    [T]his fine man, this superb coach, this honest and decent individual, had a terrible blind spot. He had this morality thing going; you had to be "morally" right to play. From that attitude came a serious inability on his part to get along with "problem" players. If they didn't go to church every Sunday and study for three hours a night and arrive 15 minutes early to practice and nod agreement with every inspiring word the coach said, they were not morally fit to play—and they found themselves on the second team.... Whenever Coach Wooden had to deal with somebody a little different from the norm, he blew the case.

    Because Coach Wooden had this thing about players being "morally" ready for play, he sometimes harmed good people. The perfect kind of player for a coach like John Wooden was Lynn Shackleford. Shack was the All-American boy. He studied hard. He belonged to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He took instruction and advice and criticism beautifully. So he started almost every game.

    On the other hand, [Edgar Lacey] was very much his own man. He did his own thing, and he did not alter his personality to suit whatever coach he was playing for. Sometimes he hit the books and sometimes he didn't. He would never become anybody's "boy," in the sense that Shack became Coach Wooden's "boy." So he found himself fighting for a starting position, while Shack got his automatically. And who was Lace fighting? Mike Lynn, somebody else who did not fit Coach Wooden's Midwestern idea of morality. Mike had to alternate at starting forward with Lace. And so help me, if I'm any judge of ballplayers at all, both Lace and Mike were better than Lynn Shackleford, despite the fact that Shack was one of the fine college players."
Alcindor does go on from there to relate a story about a player named Bill Sweek, who did not fit Wooden's morality mold, and challenged the coach about his double standards in 1969. Alcindor relayed that "Now, if you want to know how big a man John Wooden is, I want you to consider this: he is 59 years old, not an age at which people find it easy to change, and his whole view of life goes back to rustic Indiana, 1935, and Sunday school and motherhood and Fourth of July parades. But John Wooden learned something from Bill Sweek.... [H]e made us understand that he had listened and he had found out something. He made it clear that he was going to try to understand better the Bill Sweeks of this world."

One main thing that's interesting to me about The Wizard of Westwood is the irony of Wooden, in his later years, being considered a sage in terms of advice for living a good life, though his players did not seem to have any off-court relationship with him while at UCLA.

Yet, what's equally interesting is that his players have seemed to appreciate Wooden's philosophical lessons more and more as their lives have gone on. Athletic director J.D. Morgan was quoted in the book saying "I don't know if he relates to his players as well as some other coaches, but his teams have performed magnificently for him over the years. And the older they get, the more appreciative they are and the more they praise him." Indeed, I've read numerous quotes from ex-players over the last week to this effect.

Kareem is a perfect study in this regard. In his 1983 book Giant Steps, he went a bit further in his praise for Wooden. In his 1989 book Kareem, he went much further, saying this:
    "My relationship with him has been one of the most significant of my life.... Over the years, as I have moved further and further away from our time together, I have gotten a better view of the largeness of this man and his impact on me, the way one can see the full outlines of a mountain from a greater distance. It is a rare experience to meet a person who affirms the positive values you were introduced to in childhood.... You wonder if such values work and then you encounter an individual like John Wooden and see the success he's had as a person, not just in terms of wins and losses, but as a man trying to live his life with some balance and honor, and then you know it's possible. He was the real thing. His example in my life continues to be bright and shining."

All things considered, I found The Wizard of Westwood to be a fascinating and full exploration of John Wooden, timed when he was at his height of his powers after a seventh straight national championship in 1973. I highly recommend it if you can track down a copy. I'm surprised that it has been out of print for so long - seems like it's well overdue for a reprint.

Considering the most tumultuous player-coach relationships of Wooden's career - with The Walton Gang in 1973-74 - occurred after the publishing of The Wizard of Westwood, perhaps it's time for an updated book on the UCLA dynasty altogether, maybe a sweeping David Maraniss history focusing on the three disparate, singular men at the heart of the dynasty: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and, of course, John Wooden.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

ACB Finals Preview: Barcelona vs. Caja Laboral

The best-of-five series to determine the best team in Spain begins on Thursday in Barcelona (2:30 est). You can watch each game on live or on replay. After taking home the Euroleague title a month ago, Barca would like to add a Spanish League finals trophy to their display case and put the finishing touches on one of the most dominating seasons in professional basketball history.

Tiago Splitter and his Caja Laboral teammates are major underdogs in this series and even winning a game would be a chore. Barca is just a level above every team in Europe. We've broken down Barcelona multiple times this year (here, here, here, here) so no reason to say much more. Basically, they're real good. Hard to identify any weaknesses with this squad.

Barca is currently 36-3 overall in the ACB with a whopping +16 ppg point differential. Since their last loss to Lagun Aro GBC (only double-digit loss all season), Barca is 9-0 in ACB action. winning every game by at least 10. Barca finished their Euroleague campaign with a 20-2 record and 14.6 ppg scoring margin. Simply, one of the best teams ever in Europe. If Caja wins this series, it would be a stunning upset.

Barca had a fairly easy time beating Unicaja 3-0 in the semis after sweeping Gran Canaria in the quarters. Barca has won each of their five playoff games by at least double-digits. Juan Navarro has led the way with Pete Mickeal, Erazem Lorbek and Terrence Morris also playing strong ball in the playoffs.

Caja Laboral is coming off a very competitive semifinal series where they knocked off a deeper Real Madrid team 3-2. Caja's defense was solid vs. Real, often forcing them to shots late in the shot clock and consistently challenging shots. Splitter was excellent throughout the series on both ends of the floor and his post-season play has solidified his status as the best all-around big outside the NBA.

Caja's main objective is to feed the ball to Tiago. Splitter will often peel-n-seal into post-ups off of rolls or cuts. Tiago is adept at finishing off of rolls as well. His righty hook has been effective this season and Tiago can finish with his left hand as well.

Good footwork gets him quality looks around the bucket. His touch can be dodgy but it seems to be more hit than miss these days. Sometimes his post-up attempts look fluid, other times his scoring attempts look ragged--kinda like Dwight Howard. His shooting stroke is still not easy on the eyes and his touch remains his main flaw. His shot comes off flat which is a factor in below-average free throw shooting.

We have mentioned Splitter's strong passing skills before but we feel it necessary to reiterate what a terrific passer he has become. Not to mention, Tiago can make passes off the move and delivers the ball quickly when he sees an open teammate.

His lateral movement on the defensive end is as good as any big in the NBA. Does a nice job defending pick/roll and does a good job when switched onto guards. Not to mention, he runs the floor hard.

Barca will try to focus their defensive gameplan on limiting Splitter. Intriguing matchup between Splitter and Lorbek, two of finest centers outside the NBA. Boniface NDong and Fran Vazquez could see some time checking Tiago, and sure the superb help defense of Barca will shifted in his direction.

Caja Laboral has the good fortune of having one of the best the four-spreaders (stretch-4) in Europe--Mirza Teletovic--next to Tiago on the frontline. The 6-9 Bosnian (a possible NBA prospect) has sharpshooting skills to keep Barca's help honest.

Lefty shooting guard Brad Oleson can knock down jumpers and hit big shots vs. Real. Caja will look to free Oleson and Teletovic off of screens when they want to take the focus off of Splitter.

PG Marcelino Huertas is a pesky on-ball defender whose ball pressure was effective vs. Real. Will be interesting to see if he can disrupt Rubio's rhythm in the finals. SF Fernando San Emeterio is crafty finding his way to the hoop and will take some of the playmaking burden off of Huertas on occasion.

Carl English gives Caja some scoring pop off the bench but could be limited as he's trying to work his way back from a rib injury. Walter Herrmann and Lior Eliyahu (Rockets hold rights) provide Caja with two active combo forwards off the bench. Caja could really use Stanko Barac (Pacers property) to help Splitter upfront in this series. Stanko gave Barca problems in the regular season but won't go in the finals because of injury.

We're picking Barcelona in 3. It's not like Caja is a mediocre team, they're actually quite impressive. It's just Barcelona is nearly flawless, one of the best units Europe has ever seen.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Lakers Continue Dominant Playoff Off. Rebounding

One of the key statistics of Game 1 of the NBA Finals was the Los Angeles Lakers' dominance in offensive rebounding. In addition to a 42-31 overall edge on the boards, L.A. grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, while Boston could manage just 23 defensive rebounds, giving the Lakers a .343 offensive rebounding percentage (for perspective, Memphis led the league at .313), and the Celtics a paltry .657 defensive rebounding percentage (Golden State was last in this stat, at .685).

The matchup - Lakers offensive rebounding vs. Celtics defensive rebounding - is particularly important because it's a key area in which both teams have demonstrated significant improvement from the regular season to the playoffs.

In the seminal book Basketball on Paper, analyst Dean Oliver (now with the Denver Nuggets) identified the team statistics which correlate most directly with winning, which he called the Four Factors:

- Shooting: Effective field-goal percentage (eFG%)
- Rebounding: Offensive/defensive rebounding percentage
- Turnovers: Turnover percentage (TOs per possession)
- Free Throws: FTM/FGA

Here's a look at the Four Factors matching up the Lakers offensive numbers vs. the Celtics defensive numbers, and then vice versa, for the regular season and the playoffs (league rank in parentheses, playoffs numbers through end of Conference Finals):
LAL OFF .496 (16) .276 (10) .124 (5) .221 (18)
BOS DEF .487 (9) .738 (12) .149 (2) .251 (25)

LAL OFF .523 (3) .304 (1) .114 (3) .223 (12)
BOS DEF .482 (4) .775 (2) .161 (1) .284 (12)

BOS OFF .522 (5) .228 (28) .145 (27) .248 (6)
LAL DEF .484 (6) .744 (9) .132 (20) .195 (2)

BOS OFF .503 (7) .220 (16) .138 (12) .275 (6)
LAL DEF .479 (2) .717 (13) .113 (14) .302 (13)

There are lots of fluctuations here and there, of course, but the one matchup in which both teams improved significantly in the first three rounds of the playoffs was Lakers offensive rebounding vs. Celtics defensive rebounding, with the contrast seen in bold above.

Both teams had benefited by playing teams who were relatively weak in the opposing stat category, especially the Celtics. Here's how their previous opponents ranked in offensive rebounding on the season:
- Orlando (25)
- Cleveland (22)
- Miami (19)

The Lakers' opponents ranked somewhat better in defensive rebounding overall:
- Phoenix (29)
- Utah (5)
- Oklahoma City (17)
but remember that Utah was missing Mehmet Okur as well as Andrei Kirilenko for a couple games - both players were better defensive rebounders than their replacements.

We've heard television analysts talk over and over throughout these playoffs about how the Lakers were just too big for their opponents, but Boston was supposed to have bigger bodies to help counter L.A.'s advantage inside.

The Lakers' domination of the offensive glass has been a key to their 2010 playoff run. Even their two game-winning shots (Gasol Game 6 vs. OKC, Artest Game 5 vs. PHX) have come off of offensive rebounds. Pau Gasol (8 offensive rebounds) particularly dominated Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins (4 rebounds in 59 minutes combined) in Game 1.

Boston needs to prove it can clean the glass against more than the offensive rebounding weaklings of the league, and soon, or this series could be over more quickly than expected.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Can The Celtics Steal *Another* One From L.A.

With Basketbawful reposting its epic series from 2008 on the "Worst of the Celtics-Lakers" - a comprehensive series-by-series look at each Boston-L.A. Finals matchup - I thought I'd do a modified repost of what I wrote on the eve of the 2008 Finals, as I think it's more relevant than ever today.

What I wrote then was "[W]hat's interesting in looking back at the history of Celtics-Lakers Finals is that, despite Boston's decisive 8-2 edge, the C's have often won as underdogs, occasionally by stealing games they had no business winning."

Now, you can make that 9-2, after yet another underdog win for the Celtics in 2008, with Laker hearts especially broken by the Game 4 collapse in which L.A. lost at home despite holding leads of 24 points in the first half, and 20 points in the third quarter.

And here we are once again, with the Lakers favored to win again. Boston seems to be getting more respect this time, even though it did not have the better regular-season record, unlike 2008, probably a combo of memories of the '08 Finals plus how well they've played in this year's playoff run. Still, the Celtics are clearly underdogs against the defending champs overall.


What's at stake? Let's not forget the epic Joey Buss acceptance of the Larry O'Brien trophy last June, when he pointedly reminded the world that not only did the Lakers have 15 championships, but also that they needed two more titles to catch the Celtics. Will it be 18-15, or 17-16, with Kobe and Phil just one title away from catching the Lakers' arch-nemesis?

Then, in a phone interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters on draft night, Shaq pointedly said that he was going to Cleveland with the goal of being the "first to five" rings. Now, Kobe is on the cusp of beating Shaq and Timmy to 5.

Who do I like? I picked the Celtics to lose in 2008. I picked against them in the preseason and wrote them off at midseason. I picked them to lose to the Heat, I picked them to lose to the Cavs. I not only picked them to lose to the Magic, but after Game 5 I *still* thought that they'd lose to Orlando.

I am done doubting the Boston Celtics. After three playoff rounds which have been so mind-boggling in so many ways, what the heck, let's go with one more improbable result: Boston will win Game 7 at Staples Center, in one last triumphant homage to the 1969 Celtics.


Now, as promised, here's our repost of examples of several Celtic underdog wins over the Lakers, prior to doing it again in 2008:

The 1963 Finals are hard to get a read on. As this excellent 1963 SI story on the emerging rivalry spotlighted, the Celtics were considered to be an old team, which is somewhat odd because, as Basketbawful pointed out, many of the Celtics stars were in their prime, although Bob Cousy was in his final season at 34.

The Lakers made for a good story as the hot new team in L.A., just starting to draw Hollywood stars in their third year in town, and with a fresh young marquee idol in Jerry West at 24. Many thought they were set to end the Celtics' streak of four straight championships, apparently including, strangely enough, Cousy himself.

As The Cooz said in his book The Last Loud Roar:
    Very candidly, I had not expected to beat Los Angeles in this playoff. Last year's series had gone to overtime of the seventh game, which is about as even as two teams get. Facing the matter realistically - and pros are, above all, realistic - it seemed to me that they had improved a bit, if only through the acquisition of Dick Barnett, and we had gone back a little, if only because Frank Ramsey was having a bad year.
Perhaps the most colorful description of the series came from the man himself, Mr. Bill Russell, who recounted the 1963 Finals like so in his autobiography Go Up For Glory:
    1963... a vintage year.

    This was the year that everyone decided Los Angeles would beat us for the championship. We were finished. Even Los Angeles believed it. They had Baylor and West.... They had style and ability and we were getting older.

    The All-Star Game was at Los Angeles that year and the California radio stations blared all through it: "Los Angeles... the basketball capital of the world."

    It bothered us.
    It was Cousy's last series. And all that fru-fraw about the basketball capital of the world. Everyone came to see us get killed. By the time the sixth game came around the idea passed along that maybe we weren't going to be the lambs led to the slaughter.

    We were moving, fast, loose as ashes, and we were shaking L.A. and turning them every way but loose, baby. We had their number.
    [After talking about how the Celtics had blown a 14-point lead in Game 6, Russell threw in this beauty of a paragraph as he set the scene for the game's climax.]

    The mob was yelling. The noise swept over and out of the corner of my eye. I watched Doris Day drop her popcorn in her lap as she jumped with excitement and thought "Not this year, Doris, baby, not this year." I smiled and looked back to Baylor and he was picking up steam and coming down to meet me.

    [Baylor would be called for a charge that ended up sealing the game and the championship for Boston.]
    I had a magnum of champagne to celebrate [on the plane home], my one annual drink. As I stood in the doorway, I couldn't resist it. I raised the magnum and bowed and said, "As the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid farewell to Los Angeles... the basketball capital of the world."

    We exited laughing.
Yes, he said "fru-fraw."

The Celtics' streak of eight straight championships had ended at the hands of a dominant 68-13 76ers team in 1967, to the chants of "Boston's dead" in Philadelphia. Boston was truly aging at this point, and it seemed as though the torch had been passed to Philly, as the Sixers beat the Celtics by eight games for the Eastern Division title in '68 and built a 3-1 edge in the Eastern Finals.

Yet Boston fought back to win the series in a dramatic Game 7, but that merely set them up for a matchup with a Lakers team that was cruising. L.A. had swept the Western Finals, and was 38-9 since a midseason trade fortified its bench.

As Jerry West said in his autobiography Mr. Clutch:
    We were better rested, younger, hungrier, hotter.... For the first time, I felt we were as good as any team in the league. Maybe Philly was better but they were out of it. If we ever had a chance to beat Boston, this seemed to be it. If we ever should have been favored over Boston, this was the time. I was very hopeful coming in.
But the Lakers blew a 15-point lead in Boston in Game 1, and, with the series tied 2-2, lost Game 5 in OT. They would lose the series in six, and West would be left to reflect:
    What really hurt me then was that I felt we had thrown away two games in the series - the first game and the fifth game - and we had lost it at home. We could have won it. We really could have won it. Maybe not too many of the others, but this one.
The 1969 Finals is one of the great stories in NBA history, as the banged-up, over-the-hill Celtics rallied from a subpar 48-34 season to knock off a star-studded Lakers team - which had added Wilt Chamberlain in the offseason - in seven games as Celtics legends Bill Russell and Sam Jones ran off into retirement with one last title.

A couple of improbable shots helped Boston steal two games which saved the series for them.

In Game 4, Sam Jones - a man with a resume of clutch shots that's at least as long as Robert Horry's - dropped this off-balance jumper behind the picket fence at the top of the key, to give Boston an 89-88 win at the buzzer and even the series at 2-2:

And then, of course, Don Nelson, ostensibly 400 pounds lighter than today, helped stave off a furious Lakers rally with one of the friendliest bounces in basketball history as the Celtics remarkably won Game 7 in L.A.:

And then, 1984, you probably know this one. A seven-game epic that helped launch the NBA to another level, yet it really easily could have been a four-game sweep. Down 0-1 at home, the Celtics saved their season by literally and figuratively stealing Game 2 behind Gerald Henderson:

Magic was dreadful in the clutch. After Henderson's steal tied the game, Magic dribbled out the clock in regulation, as the Lakers never got a shot off and the game went to OT. Then, in the final seconds of a tied Game 4, he made a bad TO on a post entry pass, and the Celtics were able to score another dramatic OT win which again kept them in the series:

Then there was Larry Bird's epic performance in the sauna of the Game 5 "Heat Game" at the Garden, and an eventual championship in seven. Once again with help from the leprechaun.

As Larry himself said in his 2008 conference call with Magic:
    Well, obviously in '84 when the Lakers were controlling -- we got beat in the first game, went into overtime in the second, felt we got lucky to win the game, got blown out in the third game. We had to change our tactics, try to play a rough game, a halfcourt game, against them. Just watching how all the guys really turned the clock on them, played a different style, played a rougher style to change the series, I thought that was pretty incredible on our part. A lot of people didn't like how it turned out. But we had to do whatever we could to stay in the games because they were running us out of the building just about every night. For us to win the '84 championship was pretty mind-boggling to me the way they dominated us early in the series.