Archive for December, 2009

Links To The Present: Thursday, December 3rd

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Before we begin, something that is not a link. Like I said on Tuesday, on Tuesday night I went down to Staples to collect some quotes for SLAM China. (Not a joke.) During the game, one thing made itself obvious: the taco culture in that stadium has gotten out of control. The Lakers absolutely dominated the Hornets, and the fourth quarter looked like it was going to be a garbage time like any other. The crowd was going bananas every time Adam Morrison touched the ball, the entire lineup was trying to get Shannon Brown on YouTube, the defensive intensity was waning a bit. Status Quo.

Then the Hornets really started going all-out offensively and trying to score as fast as possible, the crowd started getting into the game more, and the taco chants were starting. (Laker fans get a coupon for two free tacos if the Lakers win and hold their opponent to less than 100 points.) It slowly started to dawn on everybody in the building: The Hornets are Playing Against the Tacos. The Lakers were taking their time on offense. The crowd was more involved than they’d been the entire game. And the Hornets kept going at a frantic pace and getting closer to that century mark.

The crux came with the Hornets sitting at 99 points with about 10 seconds left to go, when the Hornets gave a foul down by 13 points to try and take away the tacos. You’d have thought the game was tied. Then Collison flies down the court, flies at the rim, and got absolutely hammered as time expired. No call, because the refs were none too fond of Jeff Bower trying to take away people’s tacos. It was surreal.

I’m all for little fanbase quirks, and get that Laker fans need some way to stay engaged with all the blowouts the Lakers get. But this was completely insane. Just an extremely strange phenomena. Onto some links:

Terry Pluto on Big Z. A great read.

-LeBron is now 50-50 on the dunk contest. I’ve never been all that thrilled about LeBron entering. Partly, that’s because he doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to gain; his all-star game MVPs probably aren’t going to be the best part of his legacy when it’s all said and done. Secondly, remember when LeBron won the high school dunk contest? He got up, but his dunks were kinda weak sauce. (Also, note who he was up against.) Granted, the rules of that contest punished misses very harshly, but LeBron isn’t really a contest dunker. He’s all about amplitude and power, and a lot of times what makes a dunk look cool is “whip” – how far you can extend the ball out, and how quick you can slam it back through. (This, as much as amplitude, is what makes Vince Carter’s dunks the coolest ever.) It looks like LBJ plans to win the contest this year through no-frills power jams, and with text voting it’ll probably work, but he’ll probably just open himself up to more “controversy.”

If I sound jaded and grouchy, it’s because LeBron “controversies” about nothing have caused me to die inside. And of course, if LeBron backs out now, he’ll have another “controversy,” so he better suck it up and enter that contest. I hope he comes up with something mind-blowing. Although NBA dunk contests will always feel a little hollow to me without James White. If he’s not in it, the competition is for 2nd place. James White is the Fedor of the dunk contest.

-As some of you may know, Brian Spaeth has always had an open invite to post here. He’s only taken me up on that invite once so far, but that’s because he’s been extremely hard at work with his other projects. His latest one is the long-rumored Who Shot Mamba?, a web movie based on the epic and sadly gone Cavs blog YAY! Support Brian and check it out, because you should.

Finally, here’s a video of the Cavs’ retro jumbotron intro from last night. Z just wins in this. It’s his week.

Recap: Cavaliers 107, Suns 90 (Or, of Z and D)

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Zydrunas Ilgauskas #11 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates a fourth quarter basket against the Washington Wizards in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on April 19, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 93-86. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

Overview: As Zydrunas Ilgauskas broke the record for the most games ever played by a Cavalier, the Cavs beat the Suns behind one of their best defensive efforts of the year, holding the Suns to just 29 points in the first half.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

-Congratulations to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Seeing his entrance blow the roof off the building and the crowd chant “Z” for as long as they did was a great moment. More fitting tributes than mine have and will be written, but it was great to see all the work Z’s done in Cleveland get recognized. He’s earned it.

And wouldn’t you know it, Z actually played pretty darn well tonight. A team-high 14 points from inside and outside, with the Q going crazy after each one. It’s not every day you’ll see a crowd not really react to a spectacular double-clutch reverse layup attempt by LeBron, then explode when big Z tips in the miss. The DNP-CD situation still appears less than peachy keen overall, but on the court this was a great night for Z and Cavalier basketball.

Defense. It wins games. And tonight, the Cavaliers got back to winning with it. No Cav scored more than 14 points, but they dominated the game by shutting down the league’s best offense. Here’s what I saw as the defensive keys:

-The Cavaliers have a lot of size defensively, and the Suns, despite the fact they play fast, do not have a lot of players who actually are fast. (Especially with Barbosa out.) Switching the Nash pick-and-rolls was able to keep him from getting all the way to the rim, and the Suns weren’t getting great penetration from anywhere else. The Cavs were able to wall off the paint and force the Suns to settle for quick catch-and-shoot threes off one or two passes with a defender closing out, and those shots were not falling for the Suns in the first half. The Suns unraveling at the end of a road trip had a lot to do with how horrible they looked offensively, but Mike Brown’s gotta be happy about the return to form defensively.

-Maybe LeBron’s worst scoring game of the year, only accounting for 12 points, needing 15 shots to get them, and not going to the line once. But he was still making an impact, especially with his passing in the first half, and finished with 10 assists, 8 rebounds, and a game-high +19.

-Offensively, the story was balance. 10 players with 8 or more points, and nobody with more than 14. That’s a lot of balance right there.

-JJ Hickson only needed 7 shots to get his 13 points, and was feasting on the Suns’ comically porous interior defense all night long.

-Shaq was also getting good work in down low, punishing his former team in the paint and on the boards for 12 points and 9 rebounds in only 21 minutes. Man, he does just look unfair against undersized frontcourts sometimes.

-Delonte West. 6 assists in only 24 minutes, 2 steals, and a block, with that crazy energy level all the time. It’ll be interesting to see when he feels comfortable shooting from the outside again.

-Anderson with a strange line: 3 blocks, 3 steals, 5 offensive rebounds, and a 4-12 shooting night. That’s a lot of good and bad activity.

Bullets of Randomness:

-Mo Williams and LeBron James are very good at shooting threes off the dribble, but Steve Nash is clearly the master.

-Man, Amare Stoudemire will just embarrass himself on the defensive end two or three times a game. If he would just look like he was trying on a few of those plays, his defensive reputation might not be so toxic.

-Channing Frye can shoot the basketball. It definitely would’ve been nice to add him this off-season, which apparently Ferry wanted to do.

-I thought Steve Nash’s -15 was the game low, but Robin Lopez had a -16. In six minutes. Yipes.

Quick Links As I Head Out The Door

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

On the Illgauskas fiasco: it’s a huge bummer, but it does seem like an honest mistake by MB. Even still, it’s definitely a microcosm of how much Z has taken a back seat this season. He’s about to be the longest-tenured Cav ever, has started and played well for the last few years, and has played the good soldier while he and the team have struggled to adjust to Z coming off the bench.

While I was looking at old post move videos last night, something I’d realized before struck me again: I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this comparison from anyone else before, but LeBron’s offensive game reminds me of Charles Barkley’s more than anybody else. Look at this video and tell me you don’t see A LOT of LBJ in Sir Charles.

Alright, I gotta go down to Staples to get some quotes from Kobe and Phil on LeBron. Provided I don’t screw it up, they’ll be published. In print. In China. Every now and then, it’s good to just sit back and realize what an amazing ride writing about what I love has taken me on over these last few years. Hopefully I’ll be back strong tonight with another LeBron to-do list post.

LeBron’s Annual To-Do List, Part 1: The Post Game

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Whom The Gods wish to destroy they first call promising. – Cyrill Connolly, via Moneyball.

Watching LeBron James evolve over the seasons is at once thrilling and sobering. Since 2005-06, LeBron James has been one of, if not the best, player in the NBA each season, by virtue of his pure dominance. Because of his unprecedented athleticism, size, speed, court vision, and ability to drive to the basket and finish in traffic seemingly at will, LeBron’s pure production over the early part of his career has been off the charts. This much is hardly news.

However, what LeBron is has always been overshadowed to a degree by the idea of what he someday might become. Part of that is The Fetish of Skill at work. LeBron’s game has been, and will continue to be, based around his unparalleled ability to get to the basket off the dribble and finish at the rim, pass, and use his size to get rebounds, steals, and blocks. There’s certainly skill involved in doing all of those things, but for most those things don’t fit the traditional definition of a “skill,” for whatever reason. (Just why is a whole other theory; maybe I’ll be back on FD soon with that one.)

Part of this is a lot of fun. Cavs fans get to watch a great player, maybe the best in the NBA, maybe even one of the best ever down the line, and still get to dream about all the ways he could get better, like he’s leveling up in a video game.

On the other hand, there’s a sad truth: A Perfect LeBron James does not exist, and probably never can. More than any player since Magic, LeBron is capable of playing all five positions on the floor, and LeBron even has greater range on his jump shot than Magic did. But the fact that LeBron can do all things means that the perfect version of LeBron James is one who does all things at once, which is impossible. If LeBron takes his game to the block and refines his skills as a four, people will say that his perimeter game is lacking. If he locks down his outside shooting and starts picking teams apart from the outside, people will say he’s not using his size. If he does both, people will say he’s dominating the ball too much instead of getting his teammates involved. Every spectacular block or steal is a one-on-one defensive assignment that LeBron is neglecting.

Add that to the fact that LeBron’s narrative has been one of unrealized potential since he was 17, and you can expect to continue to see articles and podcasts about LeBron’s flaws even as he puts up record-setting numbers, at least until he wins a ring. But here’s the thing. As much as those articles can lose the forest in the trees by focusing not on what LeBron does but on how he does it, none of them are actually all that wrong in their assessments.

Even with LeBron’s immense production and the huge strides he’s made shoring up his weaknesses since he came into the NBA (and even since he was a legitimate MVP candidate), there are still holes in LeBron’s game that dreams can fill.

And so, after 500 words of caveat, here is the beginning of my list of what LeBron, great as he is, could still be doing better, starting with an entire post devoted to LeBron’s much-maligned post game.

Back in 2007, when the Spurs completely neutralized LeBron and swept the Cavs, a big problem was that the Spurs walled off the paint and made LeBron shoot contested twos, which he bricked time after time. Most of his limited offensive success came later in the series, when he started backing Bruce Bowen down into the paint and getting right under the basket. His footwork wasn’t good enough, and he usually ended up slopping a shot up, but he was able to get enough points just using sheer force in the post that Cavs fans assumed it would be a matter of time until he shored up that post game and started dominating elite defenses by sealing off double teams and destroying them in the post. Well, it’s now the 09-10 season, and Cavs fans are still waiting.

Part of me feels bad for even writing this. Yes, LeBron could stand to improve his post game. In other news, Shaquille O’Neal is not a fantastic foul shooter. Honestly, this has been discussed to such a degree that it’s almost embarrassing to mention it, let alone put it at the top of this list. But alas, it happens to be true. With LeBron’s size, strength, leaping ability, and ability to finish with either hand around the basket, there’s no good reason why he can’t punish teams from the low-block, especially when he’s way too fast for any frontcourt player to guard. With that said, here’s my attempt to at least have a few original insights into this issue.

1. When LeBron’s on the court, at least for the vast majority of the game, he never stops being a passer. And it’s clear that he’s just not as comfortable making plays from deep in the post as he is making them from further out, where he can see the defense better and there’s more room in the paint for cutters. LeBron doesn’t score very much in the post, but what he does do all the time is start backing his man down, wait for the double-team, and immediately pass to the open man, either hitting the man up top or skipping it all the way to the corner for a three. It’s not terribly effective, honestly, because he tends to hesitate a little too much and get the double 10-15 feet out, where the defense can still recover.

But it’s clear a big reason LeBron doesn’t like to get deep in with his back to the basket is that he loses some of his passing angles when he does it, or at least isn’t comfortable with the ones he has when he’s down there. Any triangle offense enthusiast will be more than glad to tell you that assists rarely come from the low-post; much more often, what comes out of the low post is “the pass that leads to the pass” or a “hockey assist.” LeBron’s much more comfortable trying to make the home run play on his own than he is giving his team a slight advantage and hoping they work it out. Given the relative dearth of offensive talent LeBron’s always had around him, this strategy is somewhat understandable.

There are a few case studies to back up the theory that LeBron doesn’t post because it would hurt his passing. Before Pau Gasol came into the Laker lineup this season, Kobe Bryant kept the Lakers winning by unleashing some of the most dominant post play ever seen by a perimeter player. (Commenters, please refrain from the party line and saying this was due to Kobe spending several hours with The Dream this off-season. That may have been a factor, but age, years developing that post game, and the reality of the Lakers not having Gasol had a lot more to do with it. It makes a nice story, but there’s a lot more at work with Kobe’s love of the post this season. How did Rondo working with Mark Price go, or, for that matter, The Dream working with Thabeet?) However, Kobe’s assists also plummeted; Kobe’s assist ratio was half of what it was the previous year, and he only averaged 2 assists a game despite leading the league in usage rate. (Now that Gasol is back, Kobe’s assists have come back up to a respectable level.)

On the Cavs this season, one of the reasons Shaq hasn’t fit into the offense all that well is that he is so confident in his ability to score from the block that he often attempts to gather the ball and power through a double-team when it comes rather than pass out, despite his lauded passing ability from the post.

Kevin McHale is generally regarded as having the best post moves of all time. He was also nicknamed “The Black Hole.” If you watch old film of McHale, a lot of what McHale is doing to score in the post is making a quick, decisive move to score instead of waiting for the defense to react, or snaking around or over a double-team. Both of those things are admirable qualities in a player whose chief duty is to get the ball in the post and score, but LeBron has far more playmaking responsibility than almost any other post player.

It is by no means impossible to be a great passer while utilizing the post-up game. After all, Magic and Marc Jackson posted up all the time. But it does require a certain kind of comfort and understanding of angles that very few players possess, and LeBron does appear much more comfortable making plays further away from the basket or on the drive, when he can see the defense better.

2. Another issue is lack of motivation to go to the post. One of the most frustrating things about LeBron’s post game, or lack thereof, is that he allows himself to get pushed off of deep post position way too easily. Either LeBron has some sort of weakness in a muscle group we don’t know about, or he’s so comfortable catching the ball in the 18-20 foot range and driving from there that he isn’t particularly interested in working hard to keep low-post position and risk the pass not getting to him. Again, there is an explanation for this behavior. There’s a reason post play has been dying off since the hand-check rules were passed: it’s a lot easier to go around defenders than it is to shoot over them nowadays. And LeBron is one of the best ever at going around guys. Even still, if LeBron wants to make his post game into a weapon, and he should, he needs to start by showing a desire to actually get the ball in the low post.

3. My final, hopefully unique thought on LeBron’s mythical post game: Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan have the prettiest post games of any perimeter player ever, and it helped them stay dominant into their 30s. LeBron James should absolutely NOT try to emulate what they do. LeBron should not try to play the post like a perimeter player. LeBron is a big man who plays on the perimeter, and he should demonstrate that on the block. Heck, he’s bigger than Leon Powe, and Leon Powe is a beast on the block. I do not want to see LeBron develop a pretty post game. I want to see LeBron develop an ugly post game.

Bucher recently described Kobe’s amazing post game as being “the old man at the YMCA,” but I think about it a different way-Kobe is a great starting pitcher. He’s throwing 4 pitches, he’s mixing up his arm angles, he’s changing speeds, he’s working both sides of the plate, he’s keeping his defender off-balance at all times and exploiting the tiny edge that gives him. That’s what a great perimeter player in the post should be.

LeBron should not be a starting pitcher in the post. LeBron should be a dominant closer. Heat, hellacious breaking ball, change-up to keep the hitter honest. Look at Pau Gasol, the best post-up big man in the NBA today. He doesn’t have a huge bag of tricks, but he’s got enough moves to keep the defense from sitting on one, and each move is deadly. Hook with either hand, evil spin to the basket when the defender tries to take away his hook, counter-pivot move around the basket when his man beats him to the spot, turnaround to keep his man honest. That’s pretty much it. And it works. Very well. Heck, Shaq’s been dominating his whole career with a baby hook over his left shoulder, a modified baby hook over his right shoulder, and a counter-spin. To use another inter-sport reference, it’s the difference between watching Tony Jaa in a movie and Anderson Silva in an actual fight. This stuff does not need to be all that pretty to work well.

When you’re a physical specimen like LeBron, basketball should not be chess. The defender does not have 15 minutes to react to LeBron’s move. He’s got less than half a second. Three or four simple but effective moves from the post, and LeBron’s not going to be able to be stopped.

Which brings me to my main critique of LeBron’s current post game: he’s trying way too hard to be pretty. He’s trying all these tricky fadeaways and modified hooks from the mid-post, when he should be taking one or two extra power dribbles, getting to where he can go over either shoulder, and draining easy bunnies all day long. He’s falling into the Fetish of Skill and trying to impress with the most intricate post moves he can pull off instead of going back to the basics, focusing on his footwork, and creating easy shots. One of my chief arguments for LeBron as basketball’s best player over the years is that the most valuable skill in basketball is not the ability to convert difficult shots, but create easy ones. LeBron needs to remember that when he posts up, and use his athleticism and size with some footwork to get layups in the paint instead of trying to use his skill to drain tough shots from 8-14 feet.

A final thought to drive this all home: look at this highlight vid of Kevin McHale, who, as previously mentioned, has the best post moves of all time. He is not making pretty shots, at all. He’s using beautiful footwork to get easy, ugly shots. LeBron doesn’t have McHale’s serpentine wingspan, but with his leaping ability and quickness, he could be getting a lot more of these looks than he thinks he can right now. For big men, the post game is all about what’s happening from the waist down, not how nice of a shot you can make with your upper body’s shooting mechanics. LeBron needs that lightbulb to go off before he becomes a force in the post.

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