A few months ago, as the college season was just getting revved up, I pondered the idea of whether or not the 2007 draft had a chance to become the greatest center draft ever. At the time there were seven to eight centers looking like solid pros while destroying non-conference schedules. Then the conference season started and these monsters, except for Greg Oden and Roy Hibbert, suddenly looked more human and rather ordinary. Then Hibbert decided to head back to Georgetown and that pretty much killed any best center draft ever chances 2007 may have had. So this isn’t going to challenge 1971 or 1992 for the greatest draft of centers ever. It might make the top ten or even the top five if Hawes can get it going and there is a surprise or two. And this is a much better group than we’ve seen in years, probably since the Shaq-Alonzo draft of 1992. Oden looks like an all-timer and there are enough other decent prospects out there that I suspect one or two will emerge as solid players down the line. The fact that I have 21 centers listed speaks to the strength of this group. I had to cut a few out who may have made the top ten in other years.
This past year I spent a lot of time looking at past prospects to try and see if there was any pattern in the statistics of prospects who became good pros as opposed to players who didn’t. For centers I found the important numbers were FG pct, points, rebounds and blocks per 40 minutes and the ratio of FT attempts to personal fouls. Players who became better pros generally posted higher numbers in these statistics, more so than other ones. Assists don’t seem to matter all that much. Not that passing is a bad skill for a center to have. It’s that there’s no correlation between center prospects being good passers and having pro success. A ridiculously bad A/TO can sink an otherwise decent prospect though. Continue reading NBA Draft 2007: Centers…
1. Finals Fallout: Not the most memorable Finals, to say the least, but let’s see where the participants go from here:
-Cleveland Cavaliers: Obviously, it was a nice year for the Cavs but what happens now? Cleveland has made steady progress since LeBron James came to town but a Finals appearance at this point seemed decidedly ahead of schedule. James still looks really raw and the talent around him is not great. As for future improvements, the team is right up at the salary cap for next year (about $65 million) and has no draft picks. Moreover, we all know that a lot of cash is committed to overpriced and hard-to-move contracts (Larry Hughes at $12 million, Eric Snow at $6.7 million, Damon Jones at $4.2 million, and Ira Newble at $3.4 million). So, trades and changes seem pretty unlikely for 2007-08 unless the Cavs are willing to take bad contracts back.
This does not mean the Cavs can’t improve. LeBron is not yet at his peak and he should keep going up and that’s a huge start. While I don’t love Hughes, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, or Sasha Pavlovic they all are pretty young and have reasonable shots at improving next year. Granted, none of the supporting players are potential stars but throw in Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Donyell Marshall and this is a solid core (though really weak at point guard).
The more encouraging point is that there is no team in the East that is clearly better. Detroit is older and Miami is a threat if Shaq is healthy and they go for broke and overpay for a couple more star-type players but the only other team to surely improve and be at title level in conference is the Bulls. So, the Cavs should be in the thick of things again next year.
-San Antonio Spurs: What else can you say? They are really good. The team is actually below the cap going in to next year ($61 million in payroll in total). They have some decisions to make on Michael Finley (player option at $3.1 million), Fabricio Oberto (player option at $2.5 million), and Bruce Bowen (team option at $4.1 million). Neither Finley nor Oberto are irreplaceable but the price is right to keep them around one more year. Finley’s per minute numbers have stayed relatively steady for the last few years and, at age 34, he should be able to continue to be solid for another year. Oberto looked like a total stiff at first but he has shown himself to be a decent live body and, again, the price is right.
As for Bowen, I keep waiting for the bottom fall out. He has gradually declined offensively (and even defensively) for several years now and is about to hit 36. At $4 million, however, there is no way the Spurs won’t keep him. In the past, Gregg Popovich kept around other vet guys like Avery Johnson and Mario Elie well into to their mid-30s, even where younger players were on the bench. Like those guys, Pop loves Bowen and a one-year commitment really isn’t too big a deal.
The other discussion centering around the Spurs now is whether they are a “dynasty.” Opinions have run the gamut and all really skirt around the issue of how one defines the term. Don consecutive titles matter? Is it wins per year? What about longevity of the teams? Under any definition, clearly, the most impressive dynasty was the Bill Russell Celtics (11 titles in 13 years) followed by the Michael Jordan Bulls (six titles in six straight full seasons). And even those two could be switched as the Bulls were generally involved in much more grueling playoff formats. But outside of those two teams, the Spurs four titles in nine years is a run that only the Magic Johnson Lakers have exceeded (five titles in ten years).
The other two knocks on the Spurs have been (a) they have won multiple titles but never back-to-back and (b) they haven’t played great teams on their title runs. With respect to the first point, titles are titles. It’s impressive to win two or three in a row (as the Lakers did with Shaq and Kobe) but I think, as a fan or owner, you’d rather have the Spurs’ success record since 1998-99 (four titles in nine years) than the Lakers three-year run of dominance without any other titles. As for the stregth of competition issue, we already looked at this last week. The premise is correct. The Spurs have had the easiest routes to the title of other multi-title teams but the difference in opposition is not nearly enough to undermine the Spurs’ greatness.
2. Ratings: The biggest story of the Finals wasn’t really the games themselves but the reactions of writers all over the country about how the Finals weren’t watchable and how the ratings suffered. Indeed, the NBA Finals were at their lowest point ever, recording a 6.2 share. The ratings decline is a reflection of several factors:
-The series was a blowout.
-The gradual decline in network ratings for all shows and all sports broadcasts based upon the ever expanding entertainment and media alternatives for viewers.
-The fact that neither team came from a major television market.
The Spurs are not ratings gold. Take a look at this ratings chart. The Spurs 1998-99 Finals was the lowest-rated Finals in the 18 previous years (though the Lakers didn’t really draw much better ratings the next three years). The Spurs also have the second lowest (2002-03) and third lowest rated Finals as well (2004-05). Still, that does not tell the whole story. My sense is that if you magically transported the 2006-07 Finals to the television environment of the 1980s and 1990s, the Spurs would draw lower end of ratings spectrum along the lines of the 1989-90 Finals (Detroit v. Portland). But in the present context, the Spurs ratings more depressed then they would be in another sports era.
There is also the side issue of whether the major sports are losing fans to the increasingly niche-based entertainment world. Whereas in 1980 a sports fan had few choices, now virtually any sport/entertainment option in the world is available online or on digital cable. The bottom line is that media is changing and the real questions for the NBA are (1) whether the fans are following the sport in ways not reflected by traditional broadcast ratings system and (2) how the NBA (and all major sports and broadcast networks) will be affected by this paradigm shift. The answers will lie in whether revenues continue to grow. If the revenues grow ratings decline only indicates a shift. If revenues decline a reassessment will be in order for the NBA suits.
Finally, some have posited that the ESPN/ABC system of shifting the games between the two networks has led to a decline in ratings versus the 1990s when NBC aired all the games on network. I have no evidence or data on the subject but I, for one, was unsure of the broadcast schedule for ESPN/ABC. Even if this is true on a larger level, I cannot imagine that the ESPN/ABC factor knocks the ratings down more than few decimal points and that the more significant issues were the ones we discussed above.
Outside of the ratings issue, however, there is no need to change the format of the playoffs. I know Bill Simmons and John Hollinger, among other, wrote about making interesting changes to the playoffs in the realm of having a league-wide seeding system for the playoffs. I don’t mind making changes to the system in theory but to seed the team irrespective of conference does more harm then good. The teams play an imbalanced schedule, skewed to the teams in one’s conference. So, the teams should be judged against those teams they play more often for the the playoffs. More importantly, we are one year removed from an amazing playoffs in nearly every round. Sometimes, playoffs lack intrigue (ultimately, the Mavs’ loss to the Warriors undermined a big Spurs/Mavs showdown) but that’s something that can’t be helped by constant tweaking. On a fundamental level, you just have to trust the product and have faith that the playoffs will be fun more often than not.
1. Bowen and LeBron: I thought the last play of Game 3 was called correctly. With the Cavs down three, Bruce Bowen tried to intentionally foul LeBron James. James broke free, however, and just missed an open three. Some had felt that the foul should’ve been called and that the Cavs got somewhat screwed. Bowen did foul James but the foul was before the shot and would’ve been worth two free throws and would’ve allowed the Spurs to effectively run out the clock. Unless Bowen totally impeded James, then the play was called right and the Cavs at least got a chance to tie the game.
2. Le Tony, MVP?: Based upon the regular season meetings and the match ups, I expected Tony Parker to give the Cavs problems but this is ridiculous. Parker has 24.7 ppg and is shooting 53%. Parker is an interesting player in many respects. He was an above-average regular player by age 20 (15.5 ppg, 5.3 apg at age 20 in 2002-03), which is fairly unprecedented for a young point guard. Parker is now an established quasi-star, a great scorer with some limitations–but he is not much of a passer (Parker never had more than 6.1 apg in season) and he really is a fringe All-Star.
In any case, Parker is the odds on favorite to win the Finals MVP at this point. This is also interesting because, almost always, the best player wins the NBA Finals MVP. In the last 16 years, the acknowledged star player always won the MVP and the player, no matter who he is, almost always is a Hall of Famer. Check all the MVP for the Finals since the award was first given out in 1969:
1968-69, Jerry West, Lakers: West is the only MVP from a losing team but he was the best player on the Lakers and, probably, the best player on the floor in this seven game series versus the Celts. The stats were limited back then (no blocks, steals, or turnovers were recorded) but West put up slightly better numbers than Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain and all the Celtics.
1969-70, Willis Reed, Knicks:* Walt Frazier was probably the better player and probably had the better series but this was Willis’ legendary Game 7 where he came back from a torn calf muscle to inspire victory.
1970-71, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bucks*
1971-72, Wilt Chamberlain, Lakers: West was arguably better than Wilt but the two were close enough that Chamberlain’s getting the nod is not shocking.
1972-73, Willis Reed, Knicks: Frazier had clearly passed Reed as the Knicks’ best player by this time but Reed, who was platooning with Jerry Lucas, played well and still had that inspirational status.
1973-74, John Havlicek, Celtics: The Celtics of the 1970s were always very balanced but Hondo was the team’s best player.
1974-75, Rick Barry, Golden State
1975-76, JoJo White, Celtics: Again, balance was the key. White was probably not quite as good as Hondo or Dave Cowens but White’s MVP was not a huge shocker.
1976-77, Bill Walton, Portland
1977-78, Wes Unseld, Washington: There were plenty of balanced non-star teams in the 1970s (Celtics, Bullets, Sonics). The Bullets bets player was probably Elvin Hayes but Unseld definitely had a presence defensively and on the boards. His numbers were not huge in the Finals (9 ppg, 12 rpg, 4 apg) but, like Reed, his aura gave him a little extra push and he was a great player.
1978-79, Dennis Johnson, Seattle: We already covered the 1970s Sonics a few months ago. The short answer is that DJ was one of the top three players on the team, and none of three were clearly better than the other.
1979-80, Magic Johnson, Lakers
1980-81, Cedric Maxwell, Celtics: Probably the worst player to ever win an Finals MVP so far. Maxwell was pretty good (18 ppg and 9.5 apg in the Finals) but not nearly as good as Larry Bird or Robert Parish (not to mention Kevin McHale, who was a rookie coming off the bench).
1981-82, Magic Johnson, Lakers
1982-83, Moses Malone, 76ers*
1983-84, Larry Bird, Celtics*
1984-85, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lakers: Not quite as good as Magic but he was still great and his resurgence after a weak Finals the previous year was the talk of the series.
1985-86, Larry Bird, Celtics*
1986-87, Magic Johnson, Lakers*
1987-88, James Worthy, Lakers: Magic was still the star but Worthy had a huge Game 7 (36 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists).
1988-89, Joe Dumars, Pistons: Joe D was not quite the star of this team but he led then with 27 ppg and so he got the nod.
1989-90, Isiah Thomas, Pistons
1990-91, Michael Jordan, Bulls*
1991-92, Michael Jordan, Bulls*
1992-93, Michael Jordan, Bulls*
1993-94, Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets*
1994-95, Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets
1995-96, Michael Jordan, Bulls*
1996-97, Michael Jordan, Bulls
1997-98, Michael Jordan, Bulls*
1998-99, Tim Duncan, Spurs
1999-00, Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers*
2000-01, Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers
2001-02, Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers
2002-03, Tim Duncan, Spurs*
2003-04, Chauncey Billups, Pistons
2004-05, Tim Duncan, Spurs
2005-06, Dwyane Wade, Heat
*Denotes that player won the regular season MVP as well.
Quite a list. Only DJ, Maxwell, and JoJo White aren’t in the Hall yet among eligible players and Johnson will probably make it eventually. Of the newer group, Billups is the only guy who probably won’t make the Hall (Wade is on his way if he stays healthy). If Parker should get the MVP, he’s probably near the bottom of the list. He’s better than Cornbread Maxwell but he and JoJo are remarkably similar players (score first point guards), though White was a shooter and Parker is a high percentage drive player. Still, they are near a dead heat. In any event, Parker’s going into a nice company, even if he’s not quite the best of the bunch.
1. Finals Preview: On paper, Cavs-Spurs seems like a mismatch. Yes, the Cavs are playing very well. Yes, the Cavs are 2-0 against the Spurs. But the Spurs are playing at a really high level and the Cavs are weaker at almost every position. Can we really gleam the winning formula the Cavs two wins against the Spurs? In fact, the first game was the second game of the season and the later meeting right after New Years (January 2nd). Here is the recap of those two games:
-November 3, 2006: Cavs@Spurs, Cavs win 88-81: LeBron had a great game (35 pts, 10 rebs, 4 asts) and Hughes was useful (18 pts on 6-15 shooting). No other Cav scored more than 10 points. On the Spurs side, Tim Duncan was great (25 pts, 12 rebs) but shot 9-19 from the foul line. Tony Parker was very good and Manu Ginobili (14 pts) was played to a standstill by Hughes. Outside of the Big Three, no other Spur broke 5 points.
-January 2, 2007: Spurs@Cavs, Cavs win 82-78: This time, the Cavs did not have any superhuman efforts (LeBron had 19 pts, 5 rebs, and 5 asts). Parker again had a great game (26 pts) and Dunan had nice raw numbers (18 pts, 15 rebs) but shot poorly from the field (6-15). The key of the game seemed to be Hughes and Manu. This time, Hughes (18 pts, 5 rebs, 5 asts) thoroughly outplayed Manu (6 pts on 1-8 shooting).
1. LeBron Pumps It Up: LeBron James 48-point outburst on Thursday was truly amazing to watch and included his scoring 29 of the teams last 30 points. Throw in some ridiculous dunks and a couple of off-balance three-pointers and you get one of those legendary playoff performances and let’s us all wax poetic about how LeBron has truly arrived. While I’m certainly on the LeBron bandwagon, it is hard to truly put this accomplishment into context because this series is not over yet. So let’s see what’s left on the table…
The Pistons did not run their offense very well in the fourth quarter and the overtimes. In almost every critical situation, Flip Saunders asked Chauncey Billups to create off-the-dribble, which is not his (or any Pistons player’s) forte. The motion offense is really a Saunders special and some motion might’ve made the difference, especially on Billups’ last shot in the lane where the Cavs were able to sag in the middle and throw off his shot. Defensively, the Pistons did try to get the ball out of LeBron’s hands by double-teaming him at the top of the key but that open court double proved to be too easy for LeBron to split. Even with the understanding that LeBron was basically impossible to stop, harder double teams were in order. The only other Cav in double figures, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, had fouled out. In fact, the only time that James actually gave up the ball late in the game Anderson Varejao was blocked on a lay up.
Optimists might note that the Pistons have had these types of let down losses before. They lost a huge double-overtime Game 5 at home in 2003-04 against the Nets. The Pistons promptly went out and won Game 6 in New Jersey and, ultimately, the title. More recently, the Pistons lost Game 5 against the Cavs last year and also came back and won the series. Two caveats should be noted. In 2003-04, Jason Kidd hurt his knee and couldn’t really play after Game 5 (he went scoreless in Game 7 and had knee surgery that summer). The Pistons did beat the Cavs at full strength last year but LeBron is a year older (and better) and the Pistons are just a year older. Clearly, the Cavs are in the driver’s seat and they will milk LeBron as long as they can. For the Pistons, cause and effect are clear. In the Pistons two wins, LeBron shot 12-34 (35%) and score 15 ppg since then James is scoring 35 ppg and is shooting 38-73 (52%). It might not be easy but Detroit has to make those Cav guards shoot, even if the shots are easy.
2. Kobe Alert: What to do with Kobe Bryant…he correctly realizes that the Lakers are stuck in a rut of mediocrity and now is demanding a trade. Kobe is apparently peeved that the team is not improving and, secondarily, that the Lakers have implied that he was the reason the team dumped Shaquille O’Neal. Let’s take these issues individually, starting with the Shaq issue:
Did Kobe Get Shaq Traded?
I don’t have any definitive information but it was clear that Jerry Buss wanted no part of giving an older, heavier Shaq the three year $90 million contract that he wanted and that was before Kobe and Shaq started feuding openly. That being said, Kobe was a free agent that summer and had the leverage to tell Buss to do whatever he wanted and probably could’ve brokered a deal to keep Shaq if he was so inclined. So what exactly happened? Here is Phil Jackson’s version from his biography “The Last Season.”
First, here is Jackson’s version of his exit interview with Kobe after the 2003-04 season: “The next subject was Shaquille. ‘Will Shaq’s presence on this team color your decision to come back or not?’ I asked [Kobe]. ‘Yes, it does,’ he said. ‘I meant what I said the other night after the fame, that the two of you could coexist and play well together,’ I went on. ‘There’s no doubt about that, ‘ he said. ‘I’ve done that for eight years with [Shaq], but I’m tired of being a sidekick.’”
Jackson also described management’s thought process in a conversation he had with Buss turning down an executive role with the Lakers:
“Your positions are different than my positions,’ I told [Buss]. ‘If you want me to be an executive, I don’t see how I can endorse them.’ I certainly could not endorse the decision to trade Shaquille. I acknowledge that the skills and athleticism are declining, and that his market value will never be better, but this is still Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant big man in the game today, maybe ever. Nobody can replace him. Dr. Buss brought up the issue of Shaq’s character, criticizing him for delaying his toe surgery in 2002. I felt a need to respond, to suggest that on the issue of character, Kobe’s certainly no saint, either. ‘It’s not that I’m enamored with Kobe’s character,’ he said. ‘But he’s twenty-six in August, The seven years ahead are the prime years of his career…..Besides,’ Dr. Buss added, ‘aren’t all superstars like that?’ ‘No,’ I told him, ‘not all of them.’ He said choosing Kobe over Shaq was also to satisfy his constituents, the fans. ‘I have to serve the people who are loyal to me,’ he said. ‘My mail runs about 5-1 on Kobe to Shaq.’”
It’s hard to know if Jackson’s recount are 100% accurate and, even if it is, whether Buss was telling the truth about his motivation. Indeed, I don’t remember Kobe being more popular than Shaq during the 2003-04 season (or since). Still, it is pretty clear that Kobe, at the very least, blessed Buss’ decision to trade Shaq–if not actively demanded it. So, for Kobe to claim that he wasn’t part of the Shaq trade is not quite accurate.
Should the Lakers Be Better?
Probably not. In Shaq’s last season in Los Angeles, the team was built around Kobe, Shaq, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone. Shaq was traded for Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, which was a serious downgrade. Still, the market for Shaq was weak based upon his demand that he go to only a few teams and it was certain that the return would be a fraction of Shaq’s value as a player. Payton was traded for Chris Mihm and Malone retired. So, it was pretty predictable that the team was going to lag because they were losing an All-Star center and two above-average starters and replacing them with a couple of good perimeter players in Odom and Butler and Chucky Atkins and Mihm.
Mitch Kupchak did make an awful move trading Butler for Kwame Brown and overpaying for Vlad Radmanovic when they already had Brian Cook (essentially the same player but cheaper). But undoing these moves wouldn’t make the Lakers that much better. So what could the Lakers have done? Kobe implied that Carlos Boozer, Baron Davis, Jason Kidd were available and deals weren’t made. Boozer was only available for Odom. Boozer would’ve helped but he missed most of 2004-05 and 2005-06 with injuries. Davis might also help but he, also, had injuries issues–not to mention a problem chucking threes and a potentially onerous contract. Lastly, trading Andrew Bynum for Kidd would also improve the team but net gain would not have been huge considering Kidd’s age and the fact that Laker’s offense doesn’t put a premium on point guards.
So what do we learn from all this? It seems then that losing Shaq was sure to knock the Lakers to the 40-win plateau and that Kobe was on board with the move. Bryant has a right to complain that management hasn’t been great but Kobe partially created this mess and the mess was inevitable. Going forward, I expect the Lakers to trade Bynum for a bigger, older name like Kidd or Jermaine O’Neal. I’m not sure either move gives the Lakers much but a two-year gamble to make second round of the playoffs unless they get really lucky in the draft and we’ll be back listening to Kobe complain again next summer.