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.