Raptors Learning About Chemistry 101

The other night, while finishing up some work at the office, I’d tweeted, “Safety inspection at work almost done. Will be home in time for #Raptors game. #Win.”

In retrospect, Toronto Raptors fans really can’t be qualified as “winners” in any category, unless you count having a strong stomach. The team has fallen on hard times, and I’m not talking about losses. As a Raptors fan, you get used to the almosts. What has been most disconcerting are the blowouts that have everyone from the coaches to the fans to the players themselves begging the team to just try.

So what happened? This season was supposed to be it, the first season of the rest of our lives. Playoffs were in view. Then the injuries piled up, along with the losses. The lineup rotated, and every game felt like a desperate pleas to survive in one piece.

Yes, I realize things have been looking up lately. That’s great. But the team’s successes and failures are all dependent on one, very basic, thing: Chemistry. This team had very little of it to start, and no opportunity to develop it because of the injuries.

Then, a long road trip and close losses stoked the fires of frustration.

And then, Amir Johnson, consummate nice-guy and cool-head, pegged a referee with his mouth-guard and got booted.

Oops.

Chemistry, on the court and off, isn’t something you can force. If you could, every team would do it. It comes naturally sometimes, like the way Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan seemed to click off the hop. But usually, it’s as a result of time spent playing together, as with Jose Calderon and Amir Johnson.

It’s the responsibility of the coach to recognize this, and capitalize on it. I’m aware that it sounds like I’m blaming Dwane Casey, because I am. I’m not saying he isn’t a good coach; there’s a reason he has his job. But as the problems within the Raptors became worse and worse, it was his responsibility to re-evaluate who was playing when, and, injuries notwithstanding, we saw very little adjustment from form.

Now, to get to my point, please allow me to regale you all with an epic tale from high school basketball. Last year, I was watching a game in which one team was wildly more skilled than the other. The stronger team also had a great attitude, and demonstrated excellent sportsmanship; the weaker team did not.

In the second half, the losing coach was ejected from the game, and cussed out the winning team the whole way. Then, his players got into it, committing cheap fouls because they’d never learned how to lose with dignity. The parents followed the coach in being ejected, and honestly, I was embarrassed for the sport.

All that to say that deliberate or not, the coach’s demeanor has a serious effect on that of the team. So I suspect that the Raptors recent attitude, their lack of desire and gumption, has trickled down from Dwane Casey himself. He seems to have gotten bogged down in all the negatives, the injuries and the losses and the frustration from fans, and can’t see past it.

Add to that his apparent inability to recognize chemistry among his players, and we have a pretty serious “top down” problem. Which brings me to a great question – Which is better: Talent or chemistry?

So far this season, the Raptors have gone with talent over chemistry. They’ve persisted with a starting lineup that clearly is not on the same page, rather than experimenting with different players to find the right fit. Let’s look at some starting lineup contrasts.

First off, the easy one: Andrea Bargnani vs Ed Davis. Talent vs Chemistry. Now, please take into account the completely irrational emotional attachment that I have to Bargnani. And yet, I’m going to make the argument for Ed Davis because, well, have you seen this season? They have been complete opposites: Davis spent his summer doing everything he could to better himself as a player. He played summer league, hit the gym, bulked up, and can you ever see it! Where last season, he was pushed around under the basket, now he’s carved out a serious presence. Bargnani, on the other hand, seems to have regressed. For so long, we’ve been excusing his lack of defence due to his offensive potential. Well, Andrea, your percolating phase is over; it’s time to start producing. The only positive development he’s made is in the key defensive plays near the end of games.

But aside from that, Davis is your man. He’s far more reliable on the glass, on defence, as a shot-blocker (he’s left-handed, which makes him much more effective at blocking right-handed shooters). And he knows to play within his limits. He never forces his offence, whereas Bargnani has become more and more desperate to get his groove back. Add to that Davis’ ability to work off his teammates, either in a high-low situation with Jonas Valanciunas or Aaron Gray (like we saw against Brooklyn), or in a pick-and-roll with Jose Calderon. As opposed to Andrea-”Black Hole”-Bargnani who, again, is exhibiting a disconcerting desperation to get his shot going, rather than waiting for it to happen naturally.

Let’s skip back a thought or two and talk about Jose. In my last Raptors-related article, I was touting the benefits of having a point guard like Lowry, who isn’t afraid to attack and score. And while that still holds true, I personally appreciate Jose’s style quite a bit more. He’s always been one of the top facilitators in the NBA, and for a team that’s comprised primarily of young (and older) players who aren’t as able to create their own opportunities, a facilitator should be much more highly valued than he currently is. Where Lowry looks for his own shot first, damn the consequences, Jose’s priority is the good of the team. He’s a proven scorer, cold-blooded and deadly from beyond the arc, but realizes the necessity of using every player. Look at the Lakers for a moment: Anytime that Kobe Bryant scores over thirty points in a game, the team loses.

Not to say that Lowry should stop scoring so much, but rather that Calderon should be the one at the helm, getting the team organized and settled to start, getting everyone going. In plain English, Calderon, who averages a double-double as a starter, should be the starting point guard, not Lowry, who should be coming off the bench.

Time and again, I’ve had to explain to my own players that being part of the second unit has little to do with skill or talent, and more to do with the chemistry of the team. The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most consistently successful teams in the league, has one of their core players, Manu Ginobili, coming off the bench. The title of “Sixth Man” is a highly coveted one. Why else would the NBA have an award specifically for those players? The second unit is exceedingly important, requiring the IQ and energy necessary to pick up where the starters left off. Imagine Jose setting the pace, getting everything up and running, and then handing off to Lowry, who explodes immediately both offensively and defensively! Imagine him striding in with the high-flying Terrance Ross, and the perennially committed Amir Johnson!

Seriously, people! Dream with me!

I firmly believe that this, far more than panicked trades, would be a huge step forward for the Raptors. It would result in a more cohesive team, and, at the very least, a lot of very impressive plays, a true “Wow” factor, and seriously reinvigorate an irate fan-base.

Because honestly, the fans aren’t upset with the losing records. What irks people is a lack of consistent effort, an inability to perform at an elite level. We’re spending our time and money to enjoy the best of the best. But when those players can’t find it in themselves to care, it’s insulting.

I’m not accusing anyone of slacking. I’ve been a player; I am a coach. You don’t do this if your heart isn’t in it. I think the players are off-balance because of a lack of chemistry, and the coaches are erroneously trying to remedy the situation by focusing too much on individual talent rather than team (say it with me, now) chemistry.

To prove my point: After a series of disheartening and embarrassing losses, the Raptors, sans Kyle Lowry and Andrea Bargnani, finally fought. Sure they lost by six against the Brooklyn Nets, but I’ll take that. They blew out the Dallas Mavericks in the very next game, still without their two “big scorers”.

It’s a step in the right direction, and we can only hope that Casey realizes that, and puts the emphasis back where it belongs: Team effort, rather than singular performances.

It’s A Ref’s World

Last season, my boys team played a game against a weaker squad. They had all of one decent player and a short bench, with no experience, and I was geared up for a massacre.

Then, the referees walked in.

Now, these two refs, for whatever reason, don’t like me. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve been overheard saying that they would deliberately call the game so my team would lose.

The other team ran four feet out of bounds, with the ball – No call.

They two-handed shoved one of my players down – No call.

My players got hammered, dragged down, hit, Metta-World-Peaced under the basket – No call.

We lost by three.

So afterwards, after I’d calmed down enough to make words, I filed a complaint. The response: “I’ll be sure to forward this to the referee’s association so the pair in question can be warned.”

About the game? “The game is finished, the final score stands.”

Referees make mistakes. Point proven by the announcement from the NBA that there was an error at the end of the game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Toronto Raptors, that Andrea Bargnani had indeed been fouled, and that he should have shot two free throws. The final score was 98-97 for the Bobcats, and needless to say, the Raptors Nation was incensed.

Honestly though, I’m really not here to rant about how terrible refs are, how they’re out to get (insert team name here). All I know is that there’s a problem, and I think we should all just talk it out.

I think it’s safe to say that sports fans and officials have a pretty messy relationship. At any level, referees are the black sheep of the athletic family. And it’s gotten serious: Look at cases of youth coaches being charged for assaulting officials after games. This is the culture that is being taught to young people, who are not only today’s fans, but tomorrow’s stars. Is this where we want organized sports to end up?

So, folks, it’s time to heal. Let’s pull up the therapists couch and go.

The first step here is to realize that referees are only human. They have eyes and ears like the rest of us. Much as we (and they) would love for them to have 360° x-ray vision, it just isn’t possible. They see what they see, and they make the call to the best of their abilities. Guaranteed, there is not one official who hasn’t had extensive training, especially at the elite levels.

Not only are they super-knowledgeable about the rules, but they look at the game differently. I sometimes ref scrimmages, and my own players get so annoyed because I miss a ton of calls. Why? I watch as a coach. There’s a huge difference, and honestly, watching as a referee is a lot less fun.

This isn’t to say that they don’t make mistakes. As I said above, they’re only human. They see what they see, and they do the best they can.

Another reason why the ref-hate gets to me is that, at the end of the day, a team’s abilities has nothing to do with the officiating. I coached a very rough game against a team of young women who were built like gorillas. My teeny little guards just couldn’t compete. They came off the court, ranting about the referees, but really, they were just outmatched. (We lost by about twenty points.)

Referees have nothing to do with the fact that your team has a defensive breakdown, or isn’t hitting their free-throws.

Now, when you have a game like the Raptors one point loss, or my own three point defeat, the officiating becomes quite a bit more significant. And that, in itself, is frustrating because, really, we don’t play so the officials can determine the outcome. If that’s what I wanted, I would have continued figure skating. (Not that I’m knocking figure skating, but truly, apples and oranges.)

So referees, in spit of their best efforts, do make mistakes. And what are we supposed to do about that? Obviously, the NBA is keeping an eye on the situation, but it’s a little late now. They can’t very well bring both teams back to play an extra 20 seconds, now can they?

They already allow for replays; should there be a fourth official watching the cameras? I know it may seem a little extravagant, but rather than having an announcement the next day, it could make a difference when it counts.

Although that kind of proposal comes with its own flaws: Do they have the power to make an independent call, or simply review the ones already made? Is it at the coach’s, or the referee’s, discretion whether to turn to this fourth official? How much authority would they have? It would be an added expense, and I honestly don’t see it as being feasible. It becomes an issue of limits, like getting a toad to catch a fly, and a cat to catch the toad, and a bear to catch the cat.

Much the same as my ranting about flopping and fouling from last season, I don’t have an answer, only an opinion. Referee mistakes, innocently made, cheapens the effort put out by the athletes, and leaves a bitter taste for fans. There needs to be a productive way to deal with them as they happen, rather than a belated-mea culpa.

How about a rock-paper-scissors for the win?

An end-note: Back to my boys game from the start, we ended up facing that team again in playoffs, and won by 21 points. I think that says enough about the officiating problem.

For those of you who believe that the officiating is fixed anyways, feel free to bring on your comments below.

Toronto Raptors: Playing To Lose

Back in July, I’d written a piece on the Toronto Raptors, or, more specifically, the team’s identity issues. The gist of it was that, due to a lack of cohesive leadership, there was no real direction for the Raptors, no one to set the pace, and thus, no way for them to truly succeed.

A lot has been said already about how the team has been doing. They are currently 2-6, a dismal statistic to see, and one that many people are taking to mean that, in spite of all the preseason hype, it really is just business as usual for the poor Toronto Raptors.

They couldn’t be more wrong. And I’ll tell you why.

Let’s look at the roster. We’ve got a pretty solid group of returning players, and an equally large number of new faces. Anytime that a team has to integrate a slew of new players, there will be an adjustment period. Look at the Lakers, who are stacked with superstars and started with the worst record in the West! The only team that seems to be bucking this assumption is the Dallas Mavericks, who hardly have any recognizable faces left!

Of all the new Raptors, let’s take a moment here to really examine two: Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry.

Let’s be realistic: For the past year, JV’s arrival has been treated like the second coming. Daily updates, documentaries, coaches sent overseas to start his training. All that hype… Deep down, we had to have known that he couldn’t possibly live up to it.

Except he kind of has.

Going from any other league to the NBA is a huge adjustment. Rules are different, play is faster, intensity is heightened. And during the first game against the Indiana Pacers, when Jonas had to go toe-to-toe with Roy Hibbert, everyone saw very clearly how much the kid had to learn. What no one anticipated was just how fast he’d pick it up! Already, he’s adjusted his defence to be tougher while fouling less, he’s found his groove scoring, and he’s becoming more productive on the glass.

(The only thing he still hasn’t improved is setting a decent screen.)

From game to game, he’s learning at an exponential rate. Check out the second meeting between the Raptors and the Pacers. Valanciunas was, once again, going up against Roy Hibbert. The difference was incredible. The rookie played like the pro that he needs to be, holding Hibbert to only six points, JV scored nine. In their first match-up, Hibbert had had fourteen points.

Seems the hype was pretty legit, after all!

Now, let’s go back to the article I was referring to earlier, in which I had lamented the lack of a team identity. I had pointed out that, quite often, the pace is set by the point guard. And boy, has that ever proven true with the arrival of Kyle Lowry. For the few games before he was injured, he invigorated the defence, seemed to be psychically linked to DeMar DeRozan, and was well nigh unstoppable on offence. Even when he wasn’t on the court, he had set a tone that everyone else followed.

With Lowry, the Raptors are quick, aggressive and don’t give up. Even with him injured, they have battled back from large deficits to finish with a respectable score. They are becoming scrappy fighters, and once they hit their stride, they are calm, cool and collected.

The Raptors have, for a few years, been a very young team, based on the core trio of DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Ed Davis. It’s impossible to ignore the way that DeRozan has stepped up, finally growing into the consistent and reliable scorer that he’s always needed to be.

I was asked, recently, why that is. Look at last season, and who the big stars of the Raptors were: Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani. Both older and more established players, with different styles compared to the younger DeMar. This year, with the arrival of Lowry (who is, really, only a year younger than Bargnani), whose up-tempo style fits better with DeRozan’s speed and drive, as well as the influx of rookies, DeMar seems more comfortable, playing to his strengths, rather than everyone else’s. He’s driving hard, settling less for jump shots, and seems more comfortable in general.

That’s not to say that he’s the only player who has stepped up. Ed Davis has quietly changed, becoming more effective at either end. He’s worked hard for it, too, having played summer league, and spending time in the weight room, bulking up to face off better against his low-post opponents. And the fact that he’s finally gone through a full training camp with the Raptors, probably hasn’t hurt either.

His efforts haven’t resulted in the same explosive success as DeMar, but it is visible. Last season, if he’d pulled down an offensive rebound, he would have had very little chance of putting it back up, due to lack of upper body strength. This season? No problem. He’s powering through everyone!

Even Amir Johnson is stepping out of his comfort zone, playing further and further from the basket, chancing jump shots more often, and becoming more agile defensively, stealing the ball from outside the three point line to result in a fast break play.

Finally, take a look at the veterans. While Andrea Bargnani is still not back to his pre-calf strain self, Jose Calderon has had no problem picking up the slack. In the games when Lowry was starting point, Calderon was finally free to take on a role that he’d experimented with last season with Jerryd Bayless: scoring guard.

Jose’s style as point guard has always been more as a facilitator than a scorer, and now, without that burden weighing him down, he’s free to prove himself as a stone-cold shooter, capable, when given the opportunity, to take that final shot, and drain it.

All that to say that, no, this is not the same old team. So why, then do they seem like it?

The problem with the Raptors game play has always been mental. They lead going into the fourth quarter, and when the opposing team puts up a concentrated (and not unexpected) effort, the Raptors balk, falling apart in the face of a true, intense will to win.

In early games, the problem wasn’t the fourth quarter so much as the first, and that can be blamed on lack of chemistry. They really have been pushing, physically, mentally, emotionally, to get the W.

A new issue has risen, and now that I’ve noticed it, it’s driving me nuts.

In the gruelling, bitterly fought, triple overtime game against the Utah Jazz, nearing the end of the game (around the second overtime), Dwane Casey went small. Granted, Amir Johnson and Linas Kleiza had both fouled out, but there was still plenty of size on that bench.

Why did he go small? Because Utah was small.

This is the exact issue of “parroting” other teams that the Raptors had so many problems with last season! Only now, it’s at the coaching level! Instead of planting a flag, on home court no less, putting in Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas, making Utah play catch up, they let the other team get the upper hand. And the Jazz won.

The lesson here is this: No matter how much talent you have, if you aren’t accustomed to winning, it’s very difficult to train yourself to play to when. The Raptors have taken some steps toward becoming a successful squad, and now they need to believe that that’s what they are: Successful.

Thankfully, in the following game against Indiana, the Raptors played their game their way, played like they knew they would win, and they did, in spite of scoring only five points in the fourth quarter.

Honestly, to see the true change in the team, see their performance against the Pacers. Aside from taking control, when Indiana came out strong in the fourth, the Raptors didn’t lay down and die. Where last season, they would have given up, this time around, they pushed back.

And boy, does that ever feel good.

Agree? Disagree? Comment below.

Toronto Has An Identity Crisis

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with what to write this time around. After the playoffs ended, I knew that current material would dry up, or, at least, current material that I feel qualified to preach about, so I decided to stick with what I know: The Toronto Raptors. My issue was where to start. There’s so much about this team that frustrates, impresses and depresses me, that I hardly knew how to work it all out without it becoming a jumbled mess of capitalized letters and exclamation points.

Then, Steve Nash chose to join the Lakers.

I’m not going to write an article about Steve Nash, or about the Raptors pursuit of him, or anything really related to that saga. Why? Because it makes me nauseous. No, what I want to delve into has to do with what he, and other players that Bryan Colangelo is wooing, represent. And that would be a team identity.

And, for the record, this is going to fall pretty squarely into the “Things That Annoy Me” pile.

Look at any successful team, and try to identify what makes them better than the others. Some people might point to level of talent or experience, but on a more philosophical level, it boils down to the team identity. The players and coaches have established who they are, what they do, and how they play. Typically, this all stems from the team leader, or leaders, with the expectation that the other players would fall in line. On a successful team, the other players do. On an unsuccessful team, not so much.

The team leaders are typically promoted in the media as their big three. Take, for example, the San Antonio Spurs. Their leaders are Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. All older and more experienced players, who guide the team with a patient and organized style. Look at the Miami Heat, with James, Bosh and Wade: Aggressive, impressive and bold.

So simple enough formula: Identify team leaders, and the spirit of the team reveals itself.

Let’s look at the big three of the Raptors. We’ve got point guard Jose Calderon, shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, and power forward Andrea Bargnani.

I’m going to start with DeRozan, because he really does represent the core of Raptors right now. They’re a young team, with a solid chunk of their players being my age or younger (I’m 24). DeRozan is the face of the affectionately nicknamed Young Ones, and while youth is great, without experience and guidance, it doesn’t amount to much. You could have the biggest, baddest, fastest, coolest car on the planet, but without a steering wheel, you won’t get very far.

DeRozan is fantastically skilled. He’s one of those players who drives aggressively to the basket, and is well nigh unstoppable when he gets there. The issue is in getting him to do it. Far too often, he seems content to settle for jump shots, which still aren’t quite reliable, although he has been putting some work into them. Because of this reluctance to drive, his performance is still inconsistent. He either scores four, or goes off for 20+, and hasn’t seemed to make the correlation between Drive-Foul Shots-High Score. He still needs that bug in his ear, telling him not to just shoot, but to Drive! Drive! Drive!

Which is where Calderon comes in. It seems to me that he’s in an awfully awkward position. As point guard, he should be the natural leader within his team. While this isn’t always the case (see: Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic,) Calderon seems as good a candidate as any. He’s experienced, effective, and has a public persona that makes him fairly recognizable.

For example, after months of griping that I was commandeering the living room on game nights, my roommate looked at the TV from her laptop, frowned, and mumbled, “Calderon got a haircut.” My roommate was still at the point of referring to teams by color, and differentiating them by who I did and did not like. And yet, the only player that she recognized was Jose Calderon, of all people?

So he really does seem like an obvious choice for the face of the team, and yet it seems like Andrea Bargnani is being promoted as such.

This sounds a little bitter, but I am definitely not saying that Bargnani shouldn’t be leader. He’s a offensive powerhouse, a double threat with his shooting skill and ability to make uncanny baskets from awkward positions under the hoop. His mere presence on the court spreads the defense thinner, and opens up opportunities for everyone else. His own defensive drive has intensified this season, to the point where he was the only one protecting his own basket in a couple of situations.

The question is not “Should he be the leader?” but rather, does he want to be?

I can count on one hand the number of Andrea Bargnani interviews I’ve watched. He doesn’t use his social networking often, and when he does, I’m fairly certain it’s his staff. While he is a polarizing player, (I’ve argued about him more than I have any other player, including LeBron James) he doesn’t seem to have that connection with the public that his necessary when one his the show-horse of the team.

Now, I’m not an expert, nor do I have any real knowledge about the inner workings of the Toronto Raptors, but I do know a little bit about team dynamics, and I’m going to describe what I see. Calderon has the natural charisma and charm to represent a team well, but he is hesitant to do so because he isn’t in that position. DeRozan is still too young and inexperienced to do it, and his performance isn’t solid enough to back him up. Bargnani has this pressure to lead thrust upon him, but he’s more focused on his performance than his image. Which lands the Raptors with no true leader, no cohesive mandate, and no real identity.

What Steve Nash represented, more than skill and experience, was natural leadership, which is why his loss is so hard to swallow.

And what is the tangible consequence of a lack of identity? A lack of success. The Raptors have enough talent to be a contender. This past season, they beat the Boston Celtics and other playoff teams, they competed with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, but were destroyed by the Charlotte Bobcats. Why? Because no one is setting the pace for them. They parrot the effort put forth by their opponents, but don’t have anyone to rely on to take them any further than that.

It reads into a lack of fluidity on the court, which undercuts their offense and negates their defense. No player really knows their role, which leads to a lot of scrambling and an atmosphere of disorganization and frustration that serves only to destroy their chances of being any good.

How can this be resolved, without the Raptors nation falling to their knees in supplication to the god of basketball, begging for some kind of miracle? Give the throne of public appearance to Calderon. Let him tell the story of the team, with Bargnani and DeRozan on either side. It would have a calming effect on the younger players, and allow the older, more experienced and effective players the freedom to play to their strengths. Let the team grow naturally, rather than hitching the wagon to their star and he can pull them all. Stop trying to be every other team and accept how they need to operate, given their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

And for the love of God, play some solid defence!

A Love Letter From A Hater

This was the first season that I went into the playoffs having watched a pretty solid sampling of most teams, instead of keeping an eye solely on my beloved Toronto Raptors. So when the first round of playoffs started, and my team hadn’t made it, choosing a team to root for was kind of like shopping with no budget. I wanted a team that communicated; a team that was hungry enough and experienced enough to do everything possible to win; a team that played together and carried each other, rather than a team that was carried by one player.

And yet, I couldn’t choose a single team. What ended up happening was that I rooted actively against the Miami Heat. The team didn’t play together, relied too much on their Big 3, seemed to snipe at each other on the court. They were cocky despite having not yet achieved anything, immature and overly dramatic. And yeah, The Decision.

LeBron James was the worst of it all. He strutted around, acting as though his assumed title of ‘champion’ was an eventuality, and not something to be earned. He couldn’t close out a game, couldn’t truly lead, and was definitely not a good sport.

Now, please, pay attention, because this doesn’t happen often, but (and I swallow bile as I write this) I was wrong.

Although, to my credit, he really didn’t show any interest in his own development until this season, so can you really blame me for judging?

Let’s skip back to the reasons why LeBron annoyed me. Friends of mine, loving on LeBron, have accused me of hating him because he’s good. Now, that’s frustrating. I’m a coach. I’ve coached players with an insane amount of natural athletic talent. Players who make people whisper, “Wow!” under their breath. Players who make it look so effortless, it’s a joy just to sit back and watch. Never once have I been even mildly irritated by a talented player. Not even one who was killing my team.

Not only that, but regardless of God-given ability, a player like LeBron does not get to be LeBron without thousands of hours of repetitive work. I’ve stood in a gym with a player for three hours at a time while she goes over the same motion again and again to make it perfect. I’ve had players beg for me to open a gym – any gym – all day, every day, for the slightest chance at one-on-one coaching. I’ve withstood a two month barrage of text messages that read, “Can we go [to the gym] today?” during summer break. Because any player who wants to be the best knows that, as Andrea Bargnani said, “Someone, somewhere, is still shooting.”

I could never spite a player for being good, because I know the work it takes, the hours it requires, the social engagements missed, special diets followed, and constant risk to their bodies. I would never have a knee-jerk reaction to hating a player because they’re good.

For anyone who has read any of my other pieces, it comes as no surprise that the quality that I prize above all others in a player is sportsmanship. I can teach a player to run, dribble, shoot. What is very difficult to train out of a player is a bad attitude. And to be a good player with a poor mindset is a very unfortunate thing indeed. It gets to a point when you’d expect maturity to take over, but when the player is an adult, well, good luck waiting for an attitude change.

Which brings us back to the main root of my disgruntlement: The Decision.

As a Raptors fan, I do have a fair bit of investment in the happenings of summer of 2010. Not that I have ever been a fan of Chris Bosh, but he did good work for Toronto, and it was sad to see him go. But by my recollection, there was no hour-long special on TSN (Canadian sports network); no trashing of his Raptors jersey. His contract was up, and he left for a richer team and a warmer client. Good for him.

But a player of any skill level who refers to himself in the third person, forces an entire organization to bend to his every whim, quits on his team during the playoffs, fails to deliver the championship, and seems to blame the city where he grew up? Not “good for him.”

Tell any person working their hands to the bone for pennies that a sports star is a professional, and you’ll get an eyebrow raise. Describe LeBron’s departure from Cleveland as the behavior of a professional, and brain cells will melt. Imagine a car salesman who cuts off all contact with his bosses, only to announce via radio ad two weeks later that he’s working for the competition. Yeah, good luck ever getting hired again, buddy.

LeBron’s behavior did irreparable damage to his reputation, and tarnished the Miami Heat, maybe forever. No matter how many championship rings that group accumulates, there will always be the bitter aftertaste of a city betrayed.

Moving on, the best for that group was their loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. For their first season together, they played like someone was just going to hand them rings at the end of the playoffs. LeBron talked multiple ‘ships, Dwyane Wade referred to The Big 3 as the best trio to ever play the game of basketball, but they hadn’t yet achieved anything! By the time the playoffs rolled around, they were the same old players: Chris Bosh kind of disappeared, LeBron choked, Wade tried to carry the team. Though, truly, what team? There was no gel, no communication, no brotherhood. They played like The Big 3 against the world, and everyone else seem to accept it.

But then, Christmas 2011 happened. In a Finals rematch, the Heat demolished the reigning NBA champions. It signaled the beginning of a change. They still sniped at each other, disagreed, failed miserably. The athleticism was still there, of course; it always will be, but the negative parts that would forever bar them from becoming champions were still present.

And thus, began the post-season. The same old Heat team from last year would, of course, be doomed to fail against the smarter, more cohesive, Western Conference Champion, whoever that turned out to be. It looked so close to happening, too! It was a close call against Indiana, and then Boston, and they lost Game 1 of the Finals against OKC.

But then, something changed. During the whole playoff run, LeBron seemed quiet (off the court, of course). Gone were the theatrics, the chalk throwing. He showed a chilling focus from the beginning of the game to the end. He didn’t even get into a fight with James Harden!

And he seemed to have finally taken the criticism to heart. He became a clutch player. And make no mistake – those high pressure shots are not luck. For every shot made, there were hundreds just like it in practice. He started leading instead of expecting everyone else to follow him blindly.

And the team! Suddenly, Shane Battier was scoring almost twenty points. Everyone laid off Mario Chalmers long enough for him to perform. Until the last two minutes of the final game, Mike Miller (!) was the high scorer!

This was the team that I’d been looking for! This was a team that communicated and support each other. This was a team that was professional. Mario Chalmers trying to amp up the crowd and getting scolded by LeBron (Pot, meet Kettle) showed a whole new level of maturity that was what clinched the big W for them, more than athleticism or skill.

I don’t think the bitterness of The Decision will ever truly wash away. Dedicated NBA viewers will remember that betrayal forever, no matter how many titles the Heat win. Let a man play where he wants, but there are expectations that we have with regards to civility.

But maybe I’m just a sucker for happiness, because watching The Big 3 bounce like six year old girls getting ponies as the final game wound down, well, I couldn’t help but smile for them.

I’m not a Heat fan. I’m not a LeBron James fan. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to appreciate a player as spoiled as him, or an organization that panders to that. But (please excuse me as I swallow more bile) they really did earn it. And isn’t that all that we ask of our champions?

A Toast To Good Health

This past NBA season was pretty great for the viewer. Favorite teams playing just about every night, stakes higher, unpredictable rankings… It’s been an exciting time to be an NBA fan.

The results were maybe a little less beneficial for those within the NBA. Fewer games means less revenue for execs. A shorter preseason and no training camp means lower performance for coaches. Less downtime between games means more wear-and-tear on our favorite players.

And herein lies my point for the day: The consequences of injuries on the season.

This isn’t to say that regular season aren’t wrought with injuries, or that players have some superhuman ability to recover given two nights of rest versus one, but this year definitely saw higher quantity and severity of injuries than usual. Because it isn’t just the games for these guys. Days off see them in practice, at the gym for twice-daily workouts, and travel. And which of us ever feels 100% after flying from New York to LA?

The lack of any sufficient recovery time for muscle tissue in regular people causes a problem. For people with such active routines, the consequences can be dire, especially when someone relies on their body as much as players do. They aren’t just “people”, they are important cogs in the machine of the team. That may come off a little minimalist or dismissive, but it’s true.

I love my players to death, but at the end of the day, we’re all in that gym for a reason.

Ready for a biology lesson? When a person works out, their muscles suffer microscopic tears which, given proper food and rest, could heal up in a few days, possibly a week. The rebuilt muscle is bigger and stronger than the old. But if muscles are worked out too often, they don’t have the opportunity to rebuild, or even recover, from the tearing. This ends up damaging muscles tissue and fatiguing the body.

Back on point: When a player’s body is constantly being worked between games, practice and personal regimens, it’s more likely to sustain injury. And as much as a team’s medical professionals, trainers, nutritionists, try to keep on top of things, at the end of the day, players need to perform. End of story.

The worst possible case would be a career-ending injury. I think I speak for everyone (even the haters) when I say that Derrick Rose’s playoff injury was horrifying. Watching the replay makes me sick to my stomach. Not to say that a torn ACL is the end of the world, but they’re estimating eight to twelve months to recover. That’s a year without training or practice, and even then, will he ever be at the top of his game again?

Do we still remember Lin-sanity? Yeah, that was awesome… until he sustained a meniscus tear in his knee and was sidelined for the last six weeks of the regular season, and the Knicks short playoff run.

Ricky Rubio tore his ACL, and dashed Minnesota Timberwolves fans playoff hopes when he was forced to the bench for the remainder of the season.

Two young players exploding onto the scene, forward momentum halted by season-ending injuries due to lack of proper rest for overworked muscles.

And how about players with those nagging injuries? Blake Griffin was dealing with some serious knee pain during the Clippers post-season, and underperformed at the worst possible time. Dwyane Wade’s game was borderline tragic during the Heat/Pacers series, risking his team’s chances of moving onto the Eastern Conference Finals. How about Chris Bosh in that same series, straining his abdominal muscle and sitting out before exploding back to know Boston out of the running for the championship?

A case a little closer to my heart is that of Andrea Bargnani. Promoted as the Toronto Raptors All-Star, hope were high that he would lead the team to… something. Anything. What wound up happening was a left calf strain that took him out for a (relatively) huge chunk of the season. He came back, there was much rejoicing, and then he promptly re-injured the muscle, and was only able to play at half capacity, if at all, during the rest of the season.

Sure, the injuries in these last examples aren’t as severe as the first set, but they do have a fairly serious effect on their respective teams. In a condensed season such as this one, (66 games versus the standard 84) each game is worth more than usual. For Bargnani, to be out for six weeks of a 17 week season (a third of the season) was a huge hit compared to six weeks of a 24+ week season (a quarter of the season).

Back to the case of Derrick Rose: He had been, like the players mentioned above, suffering from nagging injuries towards the end of the season. In his final game, the Chicago Bulls were up by twelve with under thirty seconds left. Rose re-entered the game to protect the lead, and then tore his ACL.

The playoffs always require a heightened level of intensity for team’s to succeed, from players and coaches alike. But given the elevated risk of injury across the league, where do we draw the line of what’s worth it? Tom Thibodeau sent the already-tender Rose into a game relatively unnecessarily. It was the first game of the first round, intensity was still fairly low, and they had the lead. At that point, was it justifiable to have a ‘risk-it-all’ attitude?

We saw what the result was: Rose was out, the Philadelphia 76ers (#8 seed) beat the Bulls (#1 seed) in five games, and no one on that team won. As the series wound down, Joakim Noah hurt his ankle. After sitting out for a few minutes, a reluctant Noah hobbled out onto the court for one of the most painful minutes of basketball I’ve ever watched. Should coaches really be allowed to gamble a player’s livelihood for a slim chance at the ring?

And yes, I am aware that NBA players are adults and can make their own decisions, but it’s the coach’s responsibility to do what’s best for the team, not just the star. If Rose or Noah had even wanted to go back out, their extended value to the team, not what they could contribute in that moment, should have been Thibodeau’s priority, not extending a twelve point lead in the dying seconds.

So when is enough enough? Depends on the level. I had to pull one of my twelve year old girls from two weeks of training in the middle of our season (she was not pleased) because if she hadn’t let her back rest, she may not have been able to continue playing. But at that level, development is key, and much as young players are growing and learning and winning, they haven’t yet achieved their goals. As a coach, I need to protect them and keep them playing.

During Game 4 of the Finals, LeBron James had to sit out off and on during the last few minutes of the game due to leg cramps, which got me thinking. At 27 years old, what is there left for him to accomplish in his career beyond the elusive championship? If he had been injured at all, and ran the risk of aggravating it, perhaps permanently, if he’d continued to play the rest of the series, should he have been expected to continue in the Finals? As careers progress, do players, or rather, should players be expected to take bigger risks with their bodies? Should coaches allow it?

There truly is no right answer. Every player has different priorities, every coach has different expectations. All I can say for certain is that, while the shortened season was super-fun for us, it seems to have been more than a little damaging for the league. Players out for the foreseeable future, teams torn apart, (the Boston Celtics didn’t even have their starters together for most of the season) and coaching staff who look like heartless fiends for pushing their team too hard, too long…

So maybe, let’s just raise a glass to everyone’s health, and leave it at that.

Flopping Has Tainted The NBA’s Postseason

When the casual NBA viewer picks my brain about this lockout-shortened season, we have a lot to discuss: Lower scoring across the board, playoff teams with losing records, and a plethora of extensive injuries, just to name a few.

When that same viewer narrows the discussion to the post-season, one topic seems to rise above the others: The flop.

Last week, I talked about the issues surrounding the current applications of the foul call, and the consequences thereof. Essentially, it weakens the game as a whole when fouls are called too often. The same effect is found when players flop.

While it is difficult to escape this topic, even for the most casual enthusiast, I do want to start with a brief overview of what a flop is. To begin, please understand that not all contact is a foul. Essentially, a personal foul is a limitation or control of movement. If a defensive player makes contact, but it does not affect the offensive player, there’s no call.

In the case of a flop, the offending player exaggerates the effect of the contact in an attempt to persuade the officials to call a foul. Slimy, right? NBA commissioner David Stern even admitted in an interview that he should be handing out Oscars, not MVP awards.

The effect is much the same as drawing the foul, only without actually taking the hit. Drawing the foul is frustrating enough, but watching a supposed superstar sprawl on the ground for no reason, then stare down the official in anticipation of a call… Well, that’s almost unbearable.

From a coach’s perspective, I can’t imagine that a flopping player is gaining much respect from the bench. I appreciate good, solid, smart players more than players who fall to the ground at the drop of a hat. There’s more sportsmanship involved when a player truly earns their points, stops and steals, rather than relying on manipulating the referees to get ahead.

Honestly though, don’t these players look a little silly, reacting the way they do to what is obviously minimal contact? Do we not expect more from them, athletically? You’d think that, given the feats they pull off on the offensive end, they’d be too proud to play this type of game.

And let’s look at the trickle down effects of flopping: Each player can only commit five fouls a game. On the sixth, they’re ejected. So at the worst, it would lead to inflating a player’s number of fouls, which could lead to them being ejected from the game. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James fouled out in overtime, and Miami lost. Easy enough to see the correlation.

A more extended fallout is if the flopping starts early in a game, leading a player to have four fouls by the end of the first half, which in turn results in them being benched for an extended period of time, which could affect the final score of the game.

And what about the flopping player? It’s understandable that they would become “the boy who cried wolf,” and would then be less likely to actually get a legitimate call later on. And when they don’t get a call on a flop? If they’re on defence, imagine what would happen while they’re swimming around on the floor, whining for an unnecessary call. There goes their player, off to the races for an easy layup.

And with all of the (entirely justified) fuss over injuries in professional sports, why do players willingly risk their bodies unnecessarily? Doc Rivers recently admitted that he wouldn’t be half as sore now if he hadn’t flopped so much as a player. Please note how few Boston Celtics are accused of flopping. Kobe Bryant won’t even take a legitimate charge, much less start throwing himself to the ground for no reason, and look at how effective and impressive he still is.

What about the effect flopping has on the game as a whole?

Back to last week’s topic, it all comes down to accountability. Players who flop are perceived as being unreliable, cowardly, and overall less impressive than their non-flopping counterparts. In one of the early games of the Western Conference Finals, Manu Ginobili and James Harden, both fantastic and entertaining players, bumped into each other. Both flopped. Ginobili got the call, and both were criticized pretty thoroughly.

In the last game of the Spurs/Thunder series, in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, with San Antonio on the brink of elimination, Ginobili hits a three point shot. Harden flops. The three is waved off, and the Spurs lose. While the series was a testament to just how great basketball is, how unfortunate is it that it’s as a result of a flop that the winner was decided? Granted, we can’t tell exactly what would have happened if Ginobili’s shot had counted, but many point to that call as the moment when the tide turned definitively in Oklahoma City’s favour.

So, much the same as with the problem of over-fouling, flopping weakens the game. Of course, a huge part of any sport is mental: There’s strategy, psychological warfare, knowing your opponents weaknesses and taking advantage. We would be remiss if we asked to remove any planning at all from the game. But it seems that more and more coaches and players are relying too much on loopholes, flaws in the system, and manipulation to get ahead, rather than trusting the team to do what they’re meant to do: Put the ball in the basket.

Stern has already made it clear that this topic will be up for discussion in the off-season, but what could possibly be done about it? It really is a subjective call made by whichever officials are on the floor at any given moment, officials who really are trying to do their best to keep the game controlled and safe for players.

Are we calling their judgement into question? No. The blame should definitely be placed squarely at the feet of the offending players.

But how? For the moment, they only have to withstand mockery and criticism from the people inside or outside the league.

Calling an offensive foul wouldn’t be the correct answer, as it truly doesn’t fit the criteria, (the player doesn’t gain any advantage due to illegal contact, rather, a lack thereof) but how about a technical foul? Giving the opposing team a free throw and possession of the ball might be enough of a deterrent for most players, granted that the rule were applied on a consistent basis.

And what of repeat offenders? For the moment, I can only imagine that the same situation would arise as with repeat foulers: Suspensions, fines, etc. We can only hope that the problem would resolve itself before it got to the point, as it seems a little extreme to remove players who aren’t actually hurting anyone, only disrupting the development of the sport and irritating spectators.

Flopping truly has become a serious issue within the league, causing officials to call into question every perceived foul and creating negative effects on both individual games and the sport in general. I, for one, am excited to see what, if anything, is done about it next season, as nary a game goes by now when flopping isn’t pointed out and commented on, distracting everyone from the real athleticism shown.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see a good, tough player over a whiny one, any day of the week.

When Fair Is Foul

There’s been a lot of talk during this post-season, about a variety of different fouling issues. It’s a common topic, starting when players are children, and following the game through to the NBA. And why wouldn’t it be? Anyone who tells you that basketball isn’t a contact sport is a liar. Any game that involves ten players in a contained space trying to keep the ball out of each others’ hands is always going to involve a certain amount of physicality. And given that, in contrast to football and hockey, these athletes aren’t wearing any protective gear, the contact needs to be strictly regulated – hence, the foul calls.

Some people complain that there are too many foul calls, some that there aren’t enough. Partisan spectators gripe about their teams getting called and the officials’ justifications. It’s touchy for coaches, who require their players to be aggressive, but need to be concerned for said players’ well-being.

Going back to elementary school-age kids who are just learning the sport, trying to explain the difference between a true foul and contact or, further, a good foul and a bad foul, is not a pleasant experience.

Fouling is a complicated topic, and I don’t want to get into a technical analysis of what a foul is and when one should be called, but rather the effect that fouling has on the game as a whole.

Most of my friends and family are very committed hockey fans, and when I ask them why they prefer televised hockey to televised basketball, a recurring answer has to do with the perceived violence.

“In hockey,” they say, “if they hit, it’s okay, and everyone keeps going. In basketball, they make contact, but pretend they didn’t.”

It’s an accountability issue, apparently, and I cannot explain how much I agree with that. How many times have we watched as a player clearly hacks an opponent to bits, and then gripes at the call? How frustrating is that?

On the flip side, during round two, Blake Griffin slammed someone to the ground, stood up, picked the other player up, and apologized for the foul.

Now, I’m not a huge Griffin fan, (I may very well be the only person in the world who isn’t) but that was fantastic. That was sportsmanship, and as a coach I believe that’s something to be prized in a player. When players take responsibility for their fouls it makes a good impression on coaches and fans, and makes the game more fun.

Isn’t it much more impressive to watch a game based on pure basketball and not petty rivalries? Sure, the snarking and sniping is entertaining at times, but a game played on the merits of the sport is always more appreciated. Watch Twitter – when teams play well, with an organized offence and an effective defence, people talk about it. When the Spurs ran roughshod over the Thunder last week, people couldn’t stop thanking them for a good, enjoyable game. When the Clippers got hit with five technical fouls in a game against the Spurs, there wasn’t much commentary.

Another point that’s often made is the sheer volume of fouls called. As mentioned above, there are safety issues involved, and we rely on officials to keep control of the game – but it gets to a point sometimes that a foul is called on every possession. It interrupts the flow of the game, and almost cheapens the effort of the players, giving them an out.

Case in point: this business of ‘drawing the foul’ – Kobe Bryant is the master of moving forward in time to get minimal contact and a chance at an extra point. What’s challenging about that? The point of the foul is to keep everything safe and fair, but what’s fair about playing the perceptions of the officials in your favour?

To add to this, the athletes in the NBA are meant to be the best of the best. They are marketed as such, are paid to be such, and yet they don’t seem to be able to take a little contact. Most fouls that are called under the basket, while they are technically illegal, really shouldn’t affect anything if these players are as strong and ‘superhuman’ as they are made out to be. There’s a difference between shoving someone to the ground, and brushing a hand against the shooter’s arm.

Perhaps, instead of the onus being on the officials to penalize the defence, coaches should focus on training their players to play in spite of contact. In a drill that requires parental supervision, I stand under the basket with a foam stick and ‘foul’ my players, and they are frequently able to get the and-one. And these are twelve year olds. Imagine how effective they’ll be when they’re in their twenties.

This trend of the whistle-happy official doesn’t only affect the offence. Defensive players are punished for their efforts, which is extremely unfortunate, as it’s more difficult in general to develop a strong defence without adding the threat of fouling out simply for doing one’s job. Perhaps drawing the foul purposely should be more often answered by issuing an offensive foul, simply for disrespect of the sport.

The issues with fouling don’t only come from the players and officials. Coaches are also guilty of taking advantage of the system. There was an article posted to this site recently by Steve Finamore, talking about whether to foul or defend in the last minutes of a close game, which covers the topic quite nicely. What I would like to comment on is the strategy demonstrated in the Western Conference Finals, nicknamed, “Hack-A-Splitter”, in which the Spurs player Tiago Splitter is fouled repeatedly. He has a low shooting percentage from the line, and so if the Thunder can rebound from his miss, they regain possession of the ball with little time off the clock and a lower chance of the Spurs scoring.

What these types of plays indicate is the weakness of the team’s defence, rather than strategic brilliance. If a coach truly trusted their team, they would allow them to play the game straight, without resorting to dirty tactics. We’re back to the notion of accountability, this time on the part of the coach, and truly, a coach is more respected on the basis of their sportsmanship than the talent of their team. A successful coach will focus on developing their team’s strengths, rather than exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses.

This is all pretty well reserved to ‘regular’ fouls, but there has certainly been some discussion of flagrant fouls and technical fouls. In the post-season it’s to be expected that everyone’s intensity would run a fair bit higher, and tempers would flare, which explains the upswing at this time of year in ‘extreme fouling’. The issue, again, is how this affects the game.

Technical fouls, for the most part, are justified, and are an excellent tool for the officials to keep control of the game. In quite a few circumstances, a point needs to be made, and many coaches and players will happily take their technical for speaking out about some perceived injustice. The only major issue with the technical is the double-technical, which arises when two players get tangled. If there’s a situation when both players are at fault, then shouldn’t something more effective be done to avoid the situation happening again? Officials should give a free throw to each team, at least, rather than resetting the whole play, or choose not to make the call and let everyone play on.

The flagrant fouls are a much more contentious issue, and here, I don’t want to attack whether or not they should be called, but rather, what should happen when one is called. Players like Metta World Peace, who foul severely and frequently, are a danger to other participants in the game. As the consequences of sports injuries are becoming better known, is it really justifiable to continue to allow serious fouling without an equally serious punishment?

True, World Peace was suspended for seven games following his flagrant foul on James Harden, but in the case of Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf during the Heat/Pacers series, neither were ejected from the game. They were both allowed to finish a progressively more physical game, at the increasing risk of other players, until the NBA reviewed the calls and suspended them.

The spirit of the foul call is to protect players and keep the game fair; how is this accomplishing either goal? Instead, is ejecting players like DeMar DeRozan (of the Toronto Raptors) for throwing the basketball in frustration meant to keep control of the game?

So, what is the final decision? Are there too many foul calls, or too few? The solution is evidently as complex as the problem, but maybe it stems from the philosophy of the foul call, and not the application. If officials have as their priority the safety of the players and the control of the game, and if they follow the spirit of the foul call rather than the letter, it would most likely make the sport more exciting and impressive.

And isn’t that excitement why we’re watching anyway?

Lakers Still Have The Pieces To Dominate

Here’s the surprising thing about the Los Angeles Lakers: They are a surprisingly weak team. And yet, in a Western Conference that was tipped to be far more exciting and talent-filled than the Miami-dominated East, they were still in the running, up until their elimination from round two by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

So how do they do it, surrounded as they were in the semi-finals by the patient Spurs, energetic Thunder, and high-flying Clippers?

The answer is simple, and unchanged: The Kobe Factor.

Imagine, if you will, that you and your friend Bob are comparing wallets. Bob has $15, 000 cash, while you have $0.50 and a blank cheque. Who wins? You do, obviously, since you have access to an unlimited amount of cash.

In this scenario, Kobe would be the blank cheque, but, to be honest, he is so often analyzed, that we’ll focus on the $0.50.

Now, please don’t misunderstand; this is not to say that the rest of the Lakers are only worth that amount of money. They are worth a rather lot, if used correctly.

Let’s start, as most people do, with the bigs.

Aside from Kobe Bryant, the tandem of Andrew Bynum and (one of my personal favourites) Pau Gasol is meant to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the team. And they do, to a certain degree. Bynum has been known to go off for 30 points in a game, while Gasol has averaged almost 19 points per game over his career. Unfortunately, the pair seems oddly lethargic all too often, content to watch the guards shoot until later in the game when it’s almost too late.

As a coach, one of my sticking points for my teams, and something that has followed me as a spectator of the NBA, is rebounding. Offensive rebounding, to be specific. No team will ever succeed if it allows itself one shot per possession. It’s frustrating when the average team has a hard time rebounding; it is downright humiliating for a team as ‘post’-heavy as the Lakers to not be more dominant on the offensive glass.

For Bynum’s part, a cheer applied to my competitive girls team seems fairly apt: You’ve gotta want it, to win it. And unfortunately, for the most part, it doesn’t seem like Bynum wants it. He’s got the positioning down, and he does what he’s supposed to do, but that’s about it. When he gets the ball low, he tends to hesitate a little, maybe a habit he picked up from Kobe Bryan (who does the hesitation well), but under the basket, there’s no time or space to be unsure. At this point in his career, he needs to know how to play his position.

Now, to play a little bit to the technical aspect of his game, because I know that some readers are looking for that, please note that in the Lakers 90-119 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Bynum shot only six free throws. In their Game 3 win, he shot twelve. His hustle and focus translates directly to wins for his team.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be a Lakers expert. I’ve only really paid much serious attention to them in the past two years, and to be honest, I’ve taken quite a liking to Pau Gasol. And with good reason, I think. He’s experienced; he’s a good sport; he’s involved in his community; and he’s a decent athlete.

What’s particularly interesting about Gasol is not so much what he contributes on the scoring end, but rather, the void that he fills. The Lakers don’t have a true point guard; they make do with Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake, but they don’t have a real show-runner, like Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo or Steve Nash. So in that gap, they have Gasol as their most efficient distributor, from the key. He receives an entry pass, or rebound, then redistributes to a guard for the shot, or to Bynum for the post-up.

Just a quick technical view of Gasol’s performance: In their 96-113 loss to Denver, he only posted three rebounds, compared to 17 in their next game, a 96-87 win against the same team. His assist rate also tends to double, going from three to six, between losses and wins.

Something that I have seen time and again in my coaching career is that a player is only as good as they think they are. For example, I just finished my second season with an elementary school boys team. This season, eleven of the boys wanted to be our point guard, #7. For his part, #7 wanted to be Kobe Bryant. And when they forgot who they actually were, and started playing at the level they were aiming for, they were edging greatness. Which brings me to my next point: Steve Blake.

It is impossible to truly predict how a player might develop with a different group, a different coach, or in a different city. Already in this post-season, Steve Blake has surprised some people with his bouts of scoring late in the game. And while some of his passes are still a little odd (read: bad) and he did miss that big three the other night (and was thoroughly punished for it), he still comes out when it counts.

What’s most interesting about this particular player, if you’re watching for development rather than immediate results (an unfortunate curse when one watches as a coach rather than spectator), is how he plays when he forgets who he is. A couple of times, he started to run off with the ball, then stopped, hesitated, and checked himself. Blake makes fantastic and well-timed shots when he doesn’t overthink it, when he plays like a true player, and not one of Kobe’s lackies.

All in all, the Lakers do have all the ingredients to dominate, but unfortunately, everyone has relied on Bryant for so long to do everything that they’ve stunted their own growth. Bringing in Mike Brown as a head coach and losing Lamar Odom as a staple in the offense have moved this team back a few levels as well, not to mention a lack of trust between Kobe and everyone else, although that seems to be resolving itself by virtue of everyone double-teaming the Black Mamba.

Much as I enjoy watching the Lakers, I knew far enough in advance that they wouldn’t make it past round two, and even if they had, the San Antonio Spurs would have beaten them pretty handily. But if they, as a team, can find a way to motivate their key players to perform above their comfort level, and coax Bryant into trusting the group, next season should be much more consistent and impressive.

And for myself, I’m excited to see that happen.