Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This Is Going To Be Fun

Flashback to 2001.

The Lakers were the defending NBA champions, and they were opening up their 2001-02 campaign at home against the Trailblazers. After receiving their championship rings in a pregame ceremony, Los Angeles beat Porland with relative ease, recording a "Ho-hum, we went 15-and-1 in the postseason last year and are just much, much, much better than everyone else" 98-87 win. For that night (and really the first month or so of the season, as they would start 16-1), the Lakers looked and felt unbeatable, a championship seemed forgone, and being a fan of the team never felt more relaxing, peaceful, or fun.

Seven years later, the Lakers once again opened their season against Oregon's finest. They didn't collect any rings this time; that honor went to the Celtics, who began their season with a 90-85 victory over the Cavaliers in Boston. Still, the Lakers looked like the best team in the league. They jumped out to a 19-8 lead and were up by as many as 22 before a closing Blazer flurry cut the margin to 15 at the break. The likable Portland upstarts, everyone's favorite young team, were listless, no doubt, but Los Angeles looked flawless. Their defense was brilliant, a step ahead of Portland in holding them to 31 percent shooting over the first two quarters, and two steps ahead of what we saw from them on that end last year.

They displayed an absolutely endless stream of talent: As Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley pointed out during TNT's halftime show, the Lakers have every position covered - twice. There's Fisher and Farmar, and Radmanovic and Ariza, with Odom, Gasol, and Bynum rotating at the big spots. Then there's Sasha and some guy named Mamba, who made a mockery out of the difficulty basketball at the highest level is supposed to present.

I have never seen anyone play the game of basketball so well, and yet so effortlessly as Kobe Bryant did last night. In the first 24 minutes of action, he seemed to be literally going through the motions, scoring only six points on 3-of-8 shooting. But he had an impact over the flow of the action - eight rebounds, five assists - and he was getting to any spot on the floor that he wanted and making it look easier than ever, while holding Brandon Roy to two points on 0-of-6 from the field.

Then, after a little extra-curricular bump from Joel Pryzbilla early in the third, Kobe, coincidentally or not, bumped his effort level up from 50 percent to maybe about 75, scoring thirteen points in the final nine minutes of the period. He would finish with 23 in all, on 9-of-17, in a 96-76 L.A. win. And I have to say that in all of the years I've been watching him play, I don't know if the man has ever seemed more arrogant for a single game than he did last night: it was just too easy, and he knew it. Thanks to this stacked Lakers roster and his own startling talent, Bryant now has the lightest workload of any superstar, and so on many nights this season the challenge for him may not be the game itself, but how embarrassingly simple he can make it appear to be as he further illuminates his ever-increasing accomplishments in athletic brilliance. I know, I know, I'm in love with the guy; I have a man-crush on him and I want to marry him. Whatever. On some nights, nights like the last one, Kobe Bryant is so good, his command and mastery of the concepts of basketball so thorough, his natural ability so pronounced (and even more impressive now that he's 30, with all that mileage), he deserves such praise.

Anyways, I feel the same way as a Lakers fan that Kobe came off last night: arrogant, cocky, privileged. I don't think I have ever seen a team as talented as these Lakers: their first ten players range from "solid" to "transcendent," with supremely talented bench players that offer contrasting qualities to the starters, everyone bringing something different to the table. Every style appears to be covered, an offense fast and quick-hitting and efficient and Kobe. Hell, even the defense looked great for once.

For at least one night, it was perfect in Lakerdom, and it didn't look like anything could possibly go wrong. Reminded me of 2001.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

For Love...For Honor...For Kobe

In Bill Simmons' first ever fantasy basketball preview column, unleashed Friday, he ranks Kobe Bryant only number six on his list of most eligible fantasy baller's (Bryant is generally considered a top three pick) - and goes on to explain why it might not be the greatest idea to build your imaginary team around Mamba this year. He goes through a lot of potential hazards: Kobe's considerable milage; his decrease in athletic explosiveness and the lack of a fallback option to combat it, a la MJ with the latter-day power post game/turnaround fallaway; potential on-court chemistry issues (not enough shots to go around, clogged middle); his pinkie. I'm not even going to get into all of those things - I'll save it for another day, another piece. This post is going to be long enough.

Simmons wrote something six months ago that stuck in my craw a little ever since - now, he's mentioned it again, and for my own sanity, my own piece of mind, I must delve deeper into it, and disprove it to the public.

In recent times I have become almost neutral regarding Kobe Bryant the Man. But that feeling of indifference does not extend to my fervent support and defense of Kobe Bryant the Basketball Player. As a diehard Lakers fan, I feel the same way about 24 that Simmons feels about Larry Bird or Michael Wilbon feels about Michael Jordan. So when the Sports Guy attacked Kobe's reputation for utter individual dominance last June by typing that he struggled against bigger defenders, it actually hurt my feelings. Simmons said that these types of defensive players served as Kobe's "kryptonite" flaw - nonsense, as far as I was concerned. Maybe he had his troubles against historically great team defenses, but to state that any type of single defender could have an advantage over him in a strictly player-to-player match-up...I was affected by that.

Still, I just let it simmer - until 'ol Simmy referenced it again in the fantasy hoops column - and well, I've got to get it off my chest. What can I say? It bothers me.


In the initial column, posted between games five and six of last year's NBA Finals, Simmons wrote:

"Boy, Kobe sure seems to have trouble scoring on these Shane Battier/Paul Pierce types, doesn't he? If someone's a little bigger than him, stays between him and the basket and has the reach to contest his jumper, and if that person is flanked by smart defenders who remain aware of what Kobe is doing at all times, it sure seems Kobe has trouble getting the shots he likes. Not to belabor the point because it's a moot discussion at this point, but MJ didn't have a "kryptonite" flaw. He just didn't. Of everyone from the '90s, John Starks probably defended him the best ... and it's not like Starks was shutting him down or anything. He just made MJ work a little harder for the points he was getting anyway. The point is, Jordan did whatever he wanted during a much more physical era, and when he faced great defensive teams -- like the '89 and '90 Pistons or the '93 Knicks -- nobody ever shackled him or knocked him into a scoring funk. Kobe? He looks a little lost offensively against the Celtics. It's true. Same for the 2004 Finals against Tayshaun Prince, another lanky defensive player with a good reach. Just remember to mention this on his NBA tombstone some day."

The Battier reference likely stemmed from an ABC televised game in mid-March between the Lakers and Rockets in Houston, when Battier held Bryant to 24 points on 11-of-33 shooting in a 104-92 Rockets win. And obviously, Pierce did an excellent job on Bryant at times in the championship series last June.

Then, Friday, Simmons wrote of the Lakers that "their best lineup remains Fisher and Vujacic at the guards, Kobe at the 3, and Gasol with Odom or Bynum up front ... which allows opponents to defend Kobe with bigger players and opens the door for more spotty offensive efforts from Kobe like what we witnessed in the 2008 Finals."

And I could no longer stop myself from addressing this maddening assertion.

When I did my research for my statistical analysis, I tried to study game logs (basketball-reference.com - the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be) in which Bryant played against teams with great perimeter defenders, or so-called "stoppers," who 1) are listed at at least 6-7 (an inch taller than Kobe is listed at) and 2) I can specifically remember being assigned to guard him on a regular basis.

These are Kobe's career numbers (regular season only) versus the five players whom I felt met my qualifications:

v. Battier: 25 gms, 249-585 FGM-A, 23.5 FGAPG, 42.5 FG%, 29.2 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 3 50-pt gms

v. Prince: 9 gms, 69-158 FGM-A, 17.6 FGAPG, 43.7 FG%, 25.4 PPG, 1 40-pt gm

v. Andrei Kirilenko: 20 gms, 203-423 FGM-A, 21.2 FGAPG, 48.0 FG%, 33.5 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 1 50-pt gm

v. Josh Howard: 17 gms, 176-379 FGM-A, 22.3 FGAPG, 46.2 FG%, 33.7 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 1 50-pt gm, 1 60-pt gm

v. Ron Artest (although Artest is listed at 6-7, he and Kobe appear to be the same height - you know, Kobe used to be listed at 6-7, when he had his afro - whatever, this isn't an exact science, I included him anyway): 20 gms, 162-350 FGM-A, 17.5 FGAPG, 46.3 FG%, 27.8 PPG, 1 40-pt gm

Total: 91 gms, 859-1895 FGM-A, 20.8 FGAPG, 45.3 FG%, 29.3 PPG, 11 40-pt gms, 5 50-pt gms, 1 60-pt gm

Career numbers: 866 gms, 7456-16450 FGM-A, 19.0 FGAPG, 45.3 FG%, 25.0 PPG, 92 40-pt gms, 23 50-pt gms, 4 60-pt gms

What do these numbers show us?

Well, for one, obviously, Battier does a better job on Kobe than any of our variables (I'm a scientist now). After offering little resistance to Kobe his first four seasons in the league (Bryant averaged 25.5 points on 45.7% shooting against Battier in their fourteen matchups from 2002-2005 - including the game in Shane's rookie year where Kobe scored 56 points in three quarters and then sat out the fourth), Battier has become an extremely legitimate Mamba foil: since the 2006 campaign, Battier has held Bryant to 39.9% shooting in eleven contests - 33.1 points on 28.6 shots per game. Only once in those eight games has Bryant shot above 50%.

Then again, Bryant has had games of 53, 53, and 45 against Battier since Battier joined Houston in 2006-07 - albeit on a combined 114 shots and a pedestrian 43.0% shooting.

Overall, it would seem that Battier has taken the mantle from Bruce Bowen as the John Starks to Kobe's MJ - to paraphrase Simmons, he guards him better than anyone else, but it's not like he's shutting him down or anything; he's just making him work harder for the points he's getting regardless.

Against Prince, Bryant doesn't take many shots. On top of that one 40-points game, he has had two 39-point efforts. Other than that, there's nothing to it. Nothing sticks out.

What seems more accurate than Simmons' claim is the notion that Bryant simply ran into two all-time great defenses in those two championship series, and more importantly, two units that predicated all of their potential success on their ability to stop him and him only, and game planned accordingly. And I don't think he was prepared either time. He had thoroughly dominated the postseason last year up until the series with Boston, so even though the Celtics defense had thwarted him in their two regular season matchups, I'm sure he wasn't expecting anything resembling that kind of struggle.

He had also been the dominant player in the 2004 playoffs (although not as brilliant as last year), and he certainly wasn't ready for that Pistons ambush (not to mention the fact that he made things harder on himself by playing so selfishly and effectively playing right into their hands).

Both times, it appeared as though he had walked blindly into a blizzard snowstorm, without the necessary survival skills.

And I know we've been conditioned to think that MJ was literally infallible, but if anybody really thinks MJ just walked all over those great Pistons and Knicks defenses like he did everyone else - well, you need to hit up basketball-reference.com, check out some box scores.

Anyways, as far as Simmons' idea that bigger defenders are Kobe's Achilles heel - I would conclude that that appears to be a matter of feeling and seeming, rather than actual being.

Monday, October 20, 2008

T-Mac's Sadly Unfolding Story Arc

This morning on NBA TV it scrolled across the ticker, the message that Houston Rockets swingman Tracy McGrady may miss the team's season opener on October 29 versus the Grizzlies due to "health issues." On Houston's media day last month, Mac announced that he hadn't fully healed from off-season surgery on his left knee, and would need an operation after the upcoming campaign to repair an arthritic left shoulder. Yes, you read that correctly: Tracy McGrady already has an injury so serious it will need a procedure at the conclusion of the season...and the season hasn't even started yet. That sounds insane, but it isn't really surprising: With Chris Webber now making his living under the employment of Ted Turner, Mac is the NBA's new resident MCS: Most Cursed Superstar.

McGrady has to be the only player in NBA history that peaked at the age of 23. I never thought he was as good as Kobe Bryant (not as good a defender, not as clutch), but he was damn close: The 6-foot-8, long-limbed frame, combined with the amalgamation of scoring, ballhandling, and playmaking capabilities, made Tracy the offensive fusion of an evolutionary George Gervin and Scottie Pippen. He averaged a 27, 8, and 5 at 21 (his first and breakout year with the Magic), a 26, 8, and 5 at 22, and an absurd 32, 7, and 6 at the aforementioned 23. In those latter two years, he was named All-NBA first team. By consensus, he was one of the two best all-around players in the game, and so his potential, though rarely spoken of, seemed obviously limitless.

But as Stephen A. might say...


(And if I were the Sports Guy, this would be the point that I made a reference to the inevitable "downward spiral" segment teaser of any VH1 "Behind the Music" episode.)

It all started going suddenly downhill from there. The Magic won a mere 21 games in 2004, as Mac missed 15 contests and shot the lowest percentage of his career - this was also the year that back spasms began establishing themselves as his personal Achilles heel. He would be traded to Houston that summer, and while he had a terrific year overall in his first year with the Rockets, he shot only 43 percent and the Rockets lost in the first round to the Mavericks.

Meanwhile, McGrady's once prescribed co-savior of the Magic, the conveniently redemptive Grant Hill, represented Orlando as a starter in the All-Star Game after playing in only 47 of a possible 328 games in the previous four seasons, and No. 1 pick Dwight Howard drew comparisons to a young Moses Malone. The Rockets missed the playoffs entirely the following year, and then, in 2007, Tracy was the victim of another first-round series exit, this time tasting defeat in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Jazz.

Last year, the Rockets won 22 consecutive games during the regular season (second most all-time), but lost Yao for the year in February, and once again, went one-and-done in the postseason, falling to Utah for the second straight year.

Which means that, at 29, and entering his 12th season, Tracy Mcrady has a career playoff series mark of 0-7, and there is no doubt that it is a bearing on the man's soul. McGrady is partially to blame for his embarrassing record: While the Magic were certainly overmatched in terms of personnel against Detroit in the 2003 postseason, he had his team up 3-1 and couldn't muster one more victory (naturally, this was the year the NBA changed it's first-round format from best-of-five to best-of-seven.) And he had a Game 7 at home in '07 against Utah but couldn't pull it out (the 29 points and 13 assists were heroic, but the key is to win the game).

But most of Tracy McGrady's misfortune seems to stem from ill-fate. How many times would he and a healthy Hill have made the Finals together in Orlando? He was forced to go at it alone. Why did a troublesome back sabotage his 20's and put a ceiling on his prime? We'll never know how good he could have been. Why did Yao have to suffer a stress fracture last year, on what could have been Houston's best team since Hakeem's '95 repeat squad? All those wins in a row meant nothing against the Jazz, not with Mac outmanned and reliving his soloist days with the Magic.

And why is it that, now that the Rockets have acquired Ron Artest and assured that McGrady will be a part of the most talented team of his life...he's already injured? The punt never, ever takes a T-Mac bounce.

You take a look at this Houston roster and think that they have a chance to be earth-shatteringly good. And earth-shatteringly good should at least get you past the first round. But if you're a McGrady fan, how realistically optimistic can you be? Things never seem to go in his favor.

Regardless, we root for him. We like him. And thus, may God bless his knee, back, and shoulder, may Yao remain on the court for the duration (or at least be healthy come spring), and may Ron Ron not go Ron Ron. For Tracy's sake.

P.S. And may they not beat my Lakers, under any circumstances.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Paper, Lakers Look Like Sure Thing

Lamar Odom came off the bench for the Lakers in their preseason tilt with the Kings on Sunday, and seemed fine with it for a change. Previously, Odom had expressed disgust at Phil Jackson's declaration that he will make Lamar the team's sixth man if he struggles with his transition to small forward. Odom's discontent had the potentiality of sabotaging what could be a dream Lakers season.

Los Angeles has the highest ceiling of any NBA club this year. The Rockets match the Lakers in terms of sheer talent (the trio of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and Ron Artest, along with their dedicated working class teammates, looks like bloody murder on paper), but aren't as much of a sure thing. The Lakers went to the Finals last year without Andrew Bynum, and other than whether or not Kobe's pinky will fall off, the only concern (at least to me) was how Lamar (or, to be more accurate, Lamar's attitude) would fit into the season. The Bynum-Gasol co-existence issue will work itself out in time, and even if their union is a little awkward, a healthy Kobe makes the matter moot. Bynum's presence shores up the shotblocking and rebounding problem, and I'm sure Jackson will enforce a newfound defensive intensity. And they will definitely be playing with a chip on their shoulder, after being humiliated in the Finals last year.

Now, Lamar vows not to be the large piece of ice that sinks this magnificent passenger liner. Which means that if these Lakers stay healthy, it's very likely that, at some point next June, they will have a parade that ends on 1111 S. Figueroa Street, and there will be nothing anyone can do to prevent it.


In the post-Jordan era of the NBA (1999-present - forget the Wizards years), no other organization has assembled a roster with such a transcendent superstar, surrounded by such a killer supporting cast. The Lakers have the league's best pair of big men; a (mercurial) walking double-double aptly nicknamed The Goods; and the game's deepest collection of role players. That, by itself, is a pretty damn good foundation. So to throw Kobe Bryant into the mix is really just piling on. His subpar performance in the Finals against Boston is our most recent memory of him (the Olympics don't really count), so it's only natural that he seems a little more human right now. But we should not remove from our minds the level of play we witnessed him ascend to before that championship series. For roughly a month-and-a-half, or about the time it took him to lead the Lakers to a 12-3 record through the torrid Western Conference playoff, Kobe Bryant played basketball as well as it can possibly be played. Let us not forget that truth. In 2008, he won an MVP and a gold medal, but could manage only a mere trip to the Finals; he falls just shy of Jordan. But in today's game, his peers fall short of him. And if Jordan is basketball's only true immortal (think about it, he is), then Kobe is the next nearest guy.

By the time you get to the Zen Master, you realize that this current Lakers team is not merely built to win, like other contenders; Mitch Kupchak has put together the type of personnel that should not lose and, if there were such a thing, cannot lose. We saw this with the Jerry West-built three-peat teams of the beginning of the century; it seemed obvious that a team with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, headed by Jackson, would be the squad that won the championship. Then again, when Karl Malone and Gary Payton were added to that nucleus following the ringless 2002-03 campaign, the title felt inevitable, too. And we all know how that ended.

Needless to say, nothing is guaranteed.

But a team with Kobe Bryant, in his prime, with three supporting stars, led by the best coach in league history?

You have to admit, the Lakers feel like more of a cinch than anybody right now.

Friday, October 3, 2008

An Open Love Letter to Candace Parker

Dear Candace,

I just wanted to congratulate you on winning WNBA Rookie of the Year and MVP this season. You're the new Wes Unseld. As a player, you remind me of a young Kevin Garnett, only more aggressive offensively. Love your game. And you're only going to get better. That's the crazy thing.

Now, enough about all that.

Candace, I think I'm in love with you. You're the prettiest female athlete who's ever lived. That isn't an opinion, it's a simple fact of life. It's not subjective, it's objective. We hold this truth to be self-evident, that you are the most gorgeous woman to ever play sports. Your skin is flawless, as are your features. Your mouth is perfect. Your nose is perfect. Your eyes are perfect. I even like the way you blink. On top of all that, you have baby hair - a huge turn on for me. Hell, you even make that shoulder harness (which Kobe made famous during the 2003-04 season) you wear look sexy. You're a "Mike Tyson in 1988"-level knockout.

I tried to stop myself from writing this letter, out of respect for your man, Shelden Williams, one of my all-time favorite college players. Guy was a beast at Duke, and I haven't given up on him as a pro yet. But at the end of the day, you were just too damn fine. I had to write you this letter. I want you to know how I feel about you, and I want the world to know how I feel about you, too.

Sorry, Shelden.

Yours truly,