Kobe Bryant’s Legacy

Kobe Bryant was in the NBA news recently when his former big man Andrew Bynum responded to an inquiry as to how Bynum thought Bryant helped mature his game.

When Bynum was asked about his on-court relationship with Bryant, he made it sound like a double-edged sword.

Bynum noted that Bryant will draw double teams and make it easier for teammates to get open looks. On the other hand, Bryant admittedly loves to shoot and will often overlook guys in the post with excellent position.

It was an open and honest critique. I appreciated the insight from Bynum and it made me reflect on Bryant’s relationships with his big men. Often as tumultuous as they were successful, the Laker teams of the Byrant era relied on those relationships for just about everything.

The Kobe Bryant Chronicles fittingly began with a big man. Jerry West shipped highly regarded center Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to a little known, fresh out of high school guard in Kobe Bean Bryant.

That trade would be the basketball equivalent of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but the Lakers seem to get lucky in these situations. (Bryant for Divac is only one example. The Pau Gasol trade and the Dwight Howard trade made little basketball sense at the time.)

Bryant’s years with Shaquille O’Neal resulted in some amazing feats. However, the title run was limited to three years because neither wanted to share the spotlight. O’Neal’s book released about a year ago let us into some of the grievances between the two.

Following the trade of O’Neal to Miami, the Lakers were in limbo for a couple of seasons. Bryant was widely regarded as the greatest player on the planet. The Lakers were not winning many games, and were certainly not at championship level. He frustratingly demanded a trade.

During this time Bryant accomplished amazing individual achievements, but until Gasol got to Los Angeles nothing had moved forward with the team.

Bryant and Gasol’s relationship has been the smoothest of Bryant’s career, but that is because everybody knows that between those two Bryant is the alpha male. He will take over. He will get angry at you and make you pay on the court. Gasol’s nature is to acquiesce to Bryant’s personality rather than combat it, which is why, despite his criticisms for being soft, the Lakers have been so successful the past five years.

Now we come to Dwight Howard. Howard is the new-era superstar. This is much different from when Bryant was watching the game and growing up playing ball. Bryant grew up watching and idolizing Michael Jordan. So he adopted that mean streak, that “I want the ball. Get out of my way” attitude. Good or bad, that is what he is.

Howard has more of a LeBron James attitude toward what being a superstar in the NBA is. He wants people to like him. He wants to keep his sponsors. Howard’s image is that of a nice guy and he has made a lot of money with that image. However, he still thinks of himself as a superstar because that is what everybody says he is.

So when those two personalities meet and something goes wrong on the court, Bryant yells at whoever made the mistake. Howard is not used to that, and because of that he has been less aggressive than usual despite the fact that Bryant is taking less shots per game than last season.

Bryant’s relationships with his big men throughout the years dictated that team’s success. The rest of this year will be no different. It appears he has grown to pass the ball more, but will Howard be willing to go all out? I don’t know. The good thing for the Lakers is they still have enough time to figure out the answer before it’s too late to fix.

Nets Playing With A Cocky Swagger

Until very recently if you were to type “Brooklyn” into Google, the first suggestions to pop up included “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Brooklyn Pizza,” and my favorite “Brooklyn Decker”.

However, the revamped Nets franchise has changed the narrative. 

It’s hard to believe that the New Jersey Nets were once a flourishing franchise.  Under the leadership of Jason Kidd, they had two consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

Mired in mediocrity for the majority of the past decade, however, the Nets were in need of a change.  No franchise has been as immediately resurrected with such style. 

Since Mikhail Prokhorov became the principal owner, this team made it be known that what had become the status quo in New Jersey would no longer fly.  Minority owner Jay-Z helped to facilitate their move to Brooklyn and in doing so, both these men breathed new life into a previously stagnant franchise. 

Last offseason they spent money purposefully and effectively.  After the drama of Dwight Howard became too much for them to bear and perhaps amidst fears that Howard may not be fully healthy, the Nets moved decisively.  They locked up a franchise point guard in Deron Williams to break in the Brooklyn era along with the versatile Gerald Wallace who was acquired in a trade last season. 

They also bring back center Brook Lopez, who has been a quiet 17 ppg & 7.5 rpg for his career.  Joe Johnson was brought in as a sharpshooter and a guy who can put up 30 points on any given night.  Kris Humphries, Maurice Evans, Marshon Brooks and Jerry Stackhouse provide stability off the bench and it is not hard to see why this team might be the second best in the East this year.

So far, the Nets hold victories against the Knicks, Clippers and two against the Celtics.  In particular, they have shown a phenomenal ability to play cohesively on both ends of the floor despite the lack of a rapport playing together (during most of Williams’ and Wallace’s time in New Jersey, Lopez was injured). 

It helps that the players on this team complement each other perfectly, of course.  Williams is the best all-around point guard in the NBA with his combination of passing, size, speed, strength and shooting.  Wallace is a dynamic player who requires you to guard him on every spot on the floor. 

That combo frees up open looks for Johnson, who doesn’t mind taking 20 shots.  And all that brings the defense out to the perimeter, allowing Lopez and Humphries to get good position inside.

The Nets played Miami very tough down in their house before Miami pulled away late, and tonight’s game in Brooklyn against the Thunder will tell us plenty about their fortitude.  The swagger in Brooklyn is a dangerous environment for any team to walk into.  This team has also shown it can beat good teams on the road.  Avery Johnson provides championship-level experience.  They have a roster that should make a lot of noise in the East. 

One thing is clear, Brooklyn has brought strut back to the Nets franchise.

Green Continues To Fight Through Adversity

Most of you know the name Jeff Green. 

Some people may know him from his days at Georgetown where he regularly filled up the stat sheet for a very complete team.  Some will know him from his OKC days as he was on the ground floor with that organization.  Or you might also know Green from his astonishing highlight jam over Al Jefferson last week. 

But the most astonishing thing about Jeff Green has absolutely nothing to do with basketball.

Green and the Celtics seemed like they were meant for one another.  Green was drafted by the Celtics back in 2007 only to be abruptly traded (along with other pieces) to the Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen and Glen Davis.

However, that did not mean by any stretch that the Celtics were done with Green.  Danny Ainge proceeded to basically stalk Green for the next five years. He proposed deals many times in the hopes of pulling the versatile forward away from OKC.

On February 25, 2011, Ainge finally got his man. In a largely unpopular move, the Celtics traded Center Kendrick Perkins along with Nate Robinson to the Thunder for Green and Nenad Kristic.

Green had an up and down second half of the 2011 season, but played much better in the beginning of the following year.  In fact, he received a one-year extension on December 10, 2011.  What happened next, nobody would have predicted. Exactly one week later, Green was diagnosed with aortic aneurism, which would require open-heart surgery.

The surgery meant Green had to question his entire future.  Would he be able to play basketball again? Even Green had his doubts about that, but the most pressing matter was of life and death.  When Green woke up from his procedure on January 9, he could not move.  He compared that feeling to being an infant and having to go through all the little intermediate stages in life before even thinking about picking up a basketball again.

Green began receiving a tremendous amount of support from his teammates and peers.  Kevin Durant dedicated his season to Green.  All the Celtics rallied around Green like he was a member of their immediate family. He was on the bench for almost every Celtics game, despite technically being a free agent. The Celtics, their players and front office alike, have treated Green as a member of their family.  Ainge seems to feel a personal connection to Green, having followed him since likely far before that 2007 NBA Draft. And as soon as Green was given the green light on his health, the Celtics locked him up with a 4-year/$36 million contract.

Ainge took on an immense amount of criticism for that move.  Even when Green played for the Celtics he hadn’t shown that sort of worth.  Many questioned if he ever would.

It’s one thing to go through open-heart surgery and all that entails.  It is a completely different challenge to get back to being a professional athlete afterwards. That is exactly what Green set out to do and so far he is passing with flying colors.  He once again has the supreme bounce and athleticism that drew Ainge in to begin with, and he appears to be on the verge of busting out. 

Not even a full year after one of the most serious operations in the medical field, Jeff Green is running the floor like a champion.  His conditioning still needs work, but less than a year removed from that surgery Green is very close to being 100% of the player the Celtics coveted for so long.

Green’s determination, resolve, dedication and drive have fueled an improbable recovery. Even if he doesn’t score another NBA point, if he bricks every jump shot or blows every defensive assignment there is not one person that can tell Green he failed. Because if Jeff Green is what failure looks like, then sign me up.

The Show Goes On In Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Lakers made headlines this week when they hired Mike D’Antoni as their head coach. Now, that in a vacuum would typically be very well received. D’Antoni ran an offense in Phoenix that produced points at a rate nobody had ever seen before. Steve Nash took two MVP Awards in the prime of Kobe Bryant’s career in D’Antoni’s system. So, of course this should be seen as the perfect antidote for the Lakers’.

Had the narrative been, “Lakers fire Mike Brown then hire D’Antoni,” then Laker fans would be absolutely thrilled to have D’Antoni. However, the Lakers went back to the well. They called the great Phil Jackson and he was interested. But the Lakers turned Jackson down! That shocking turn of events triggered an overreaction by fans and media.

The lack of respect shown to a man with the pedigree of Jackson’s is remarkable. If this was truly a basketball decision, it could have been made without bothering Jackson. They knew exactly what they were going to get with Jackson as the coach so there could not have been any new information gained by going to talk to him. I will never understand why they bothered Jackson, and few will, but that should not detract from the fact that D’Antoni is a great hire.

D’Antoni’s offenses in Phoenix produced these incredible points per game numbers: 114 (’04-’05), 111 (’05-’06), 114 (’06-’07), 113 (’07-’08). He had over 50 wins in each season. The Suns won 26 Playoff Games and haven’t won a series since he was their coach.

Most importantly, he has a similar collection of talent with Nash at the point and an athletic big in Dwight Howard. Kobe Bryant will see plenty of open looks in transition as will Antawn Jamison and Steve Blake.

The Lakers will score plenty and will win enough to satisfy the “Showtime” moniker in Los Angeles. The question will come in the postseason, of course. This team can’t just win 55 games. They expect a ring this season. Howard is headed to free agency unless the Lakers can give him a very good reason to stick around. Can D’Antoni live up to those expectations? He wasn’t able to in New York, but they did have one winning season under him.

The talent on this team exceeds any he has ever had, particularly on the defensive side of the basketball. Howard, as everyone knows, is a monster on defense. Metta World Peace is always tenacious as well. That may make a difference for D’Antoni this time around.

One thing is for sure, the next few months are sure to be a show in Los Angeles.

Knicks Winning With Old School Roster

As we enter the second week of November, the NBA has already given us plenty to talk about.

Starting with the James Harden trade this season has been a slew of unpredictability. The Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett spat and the Lakers struggles also highlighted what we both love and hate about sports.

The biggest surprise so far, though, has to be the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA: the New York Knickerbockers.

This is a team that has struggled to find its identity ever since trading for Carmelo Anthony in February of last year.  Before that trade, the Knicks had a good, young core of players that covered a variety of skill sets. Raymond Felton was having his best year as a pro running Mike D’antoni’s up-tempo offense. Danilo Galinari shot the lights out and established himself as a legit scoring threat in the game.  Timofey Mozgov showed promise as an interior defender despite being turned into an adjective by Blake Griffin.  Also, Wilson Chandler showed promise as a young Gerald Wallace or even a Rudy Gay.

Fast forward to today after the Knicks have been an exercise in futility for the past two seasons despite having two of the most prolific offensive talents in the game, but it seems that GM Glen Grunwald has finally put a roster together that has the fortitude to sustain a championship run.

The Knicks biggest problem has been their lack of a leader on the court. Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are alpha-male personalities but neither of them are natural leaders.  This much can be seen in the many faces of the Knicks last season. They started out with promise then got shaken up by injuries. Jeremy Lin emerged as a potential savior for about a month until he went down. Then Anthony came back and took over before the team was ousted by the Heat in round one.

So, it was clear to the Knicks brass that they needed some big time changes in the personality of this team. They definitely had the talent on both ends of the floor to be a dynamic team, but they lacked leadership, which ultimately let them down in tight games. Glen Grunwald went out and replenished his roster with veterans and “system fitters.” Felton flourished with Stoudemire in New York a couple years back so there was already a familiarity with that move. Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler give the Knicks the most depth at the Center position of any team, by far. However, the two biggest acquisitions for this team are a combined 77 years old.

Rasheed Wallace has had time to nurse all his nagging injuries and comes out of retirement to join New York. Say what you want about him being a volatile personality, Wallace has always been regarded as one of the smartest players in the game. His innate understanding of offensive and defensive spacing along with his experience in Playoff situations make him a key component in the Knicks success.

The second acquisition, which may turn out to be one of the most significant of the offseason, was Jason Kidd. They say goodbye to Jeremy Lin and his pick-and-roll, high turnover, high assist offensive set and they say hello to one of the best leaders from the point guard position that the game has ever seen. In my opinion, the Lakers would have been much better suited going after Kidd than Nash because of his championship experience and his reliability in staying healthy.

Kidd brings composure and leadership to a team devoid of both the last two years.  Wallace brings intelligence and swagger. Anthony and Stoudemire will obviously bring the scoring. What has it gotten New York so far? They are 3-0, all double digit victories. They lead the NBA in scoring defense, are third in scoring offense and as long as they stay healthy it is clear they have assembled a collection of talent that complements each other very well. Miami and Boston may have some competition in the East after all.

The Lakers Big Gamble Isn’t Paying Off

The Lakers were pissed off at the end of last season. Why? Really, I’m not quite sure.  I understand that there are always lofty expectations concerning the biggest ticket in LA but consider what they were working with last year. The roster consisted of three All-Stars, just as the Heat, Celtics, Spurs and Pistons had in the past (all of which eventually won titles), and it was a combination of talent that had won in the past.

It seemed the only issue this team had going into the offseason was to shore up its bench and they would be ready for another deep run.  The fact that the team they had last year were able to take a game from the Thunder should have been a sign of optimism rather than cause for uproar.

However, the Lakers went for the big score as they so often do and landed a very much maligned Dwight Howard who was desperate to end his tenure in Orlando, so desperate he accepted a trade to a team he did not want to play for. And it may turn out that this trade may all but doom the immediate future of the organization.

The trade, in itself, was fine. Howard for Andrew Bynum is an upgrade is some areas and not so much in others, but Howawrd is more reliable on a night-by-night basis.  Both were in contract years and it was clear Bynum wanted to test the market. However, Howard did not want to be a Laker and he may still not want to be a Laker.

The Nash move puzzled me. It’s not that he’s a bad fit, but they gave him $27 million over three years.  That’s far too risky for a guy with enough nagging injuries to have a syndrome named after him. Case and point: Nash has a broken bone in his foot and will miss the next few weeks.

Kobe Bryant is about Moses’ age in NBA years and has made it very clear he’s not going to stick around and average 20 points per game. As Kobe has said in the past “I’m not that guy.”

So your aging superstar has made it clear that once his greatness has run out, he’s getting out of dodge. Adding Nash should have brought stability and consistency to an offense that has been “get the ball to Kobe” for too long. He would add stability if he were free to be Steve Nash, but for some reason the coach who has built his rhetoric upon defensive intensity suddenly thought he was the smartest guy in the room.

Mike Brown introduced the “Princeton Offense” to the Lakers, and then Rome fell before it even could crown itself an empire.  In my approximately 17 years of playing, watching, reading about and talking about basketball, I have picked up a thing or two. I may not be an NBA coach, but I know all about the “Princeton Offense”. It’s a set that involved anticipation, ball movement, off-ball screens and great continuity. In short, it typically hides the fact that a team lacks talent.

For the Lakers, it hides the talent that they clearly possess. They have one of the best scorers of all-time, a monstrously athletic big man in Howard and a sweet as sugar distributer in Nash, who turned an aging Shaquille O’Neal into an All-Star in Phoenix.  So of these guys, who has been the Lakers key cog in the Princeton Offense? Pau Gasol.  If the Lakers expect to go far, Gasol cannot be their best player. A team with Gasol as their best player was the exact situation he escaped from in Memphis.

Once more, this offense will chase Howard right out of Los Angeles.  Say they struggle to a 5-seed, is Dwight coming back to that team? No way, he’s running for the border (the state border) and likely signing with a team he wanted to play for in the first place.

Laker fans, I realize it’s only three games and everybody needs to calm down.  You can make that claim, but no other team with the talent of the Lakers would ever dream of running this offense.  The back-cuts and anticipation passes are regularly mistimed, resulting in turnovers and confusion. When that happens, the ball moves the other way in a hurry and the Lakers don’t have the athleticism to squash a fastbreak.  That’s free points for the other team about 20 different times a night.

Yes it’s early, but the sets this team has run on offense show telling signs of stubbornness that will inhibit their ability to grow as a team and come together, which is the only way to win a championship.

The Wandering Beard

As Thunder GM Sam Presti was watching his former sixth man run circles around the Pistons, I suspect he had a moment of recoil. At least he should have.

Keep in mind that as the Lakers struggle to 0-10 (including preseason) much like the Heat struggled a couple of years ago, NBA analysts around the country emphasize that a team needs time to “gel”. And while I don’t doubt the acumen or insider expertise of any of these former players and coaches, I did just watch James Harden turn into “Big Game” James and drop a LeBron James like stat line without ever having played with any of the current Rockets.

James Harden came off the bench last year and regularly sparked the Thunder to victories. He was a burst of energy that the other team rarely saw coming, and often had no answer for. Standing 6’5” and 230lbs, Harden has prototypical size for his position and is one of the best athletes in the NBA. If he had LeBron’s size I could make a case for him possibly growing into the best in the game. He drives the ball with raw power and swift feet. He shoots the ball with a silky release and a confident follow-through. He’s already one of the most intelligent players with the ball in his hands. And he is COLD BLOODED.

Now, none of this is news to Sam Presti. So why get rid of him? Money, money, money. He saw Harden was in line for the type of deal he got from Houston and simply could not fit that into the Thunder’s current budget. The key word there being “current”. Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are all locked up to big deals and Harden’s deal would have meant another $30 mil in luxury tax.

I get that, but here’s the thing: Would you rather have Westbrook or Harden signed to a max deal?

Russell Westbrook is one of the best talents in the NBA and there is absolutely no disputing that. But he is a little behind the curve from the neck up. He fires wild, wayward passes; often turning the ball over more than 7 or 8 times in a game. Most possessions that begin with the ball in his hands end that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him dribble the ball up, then just pull up from 15 feet. That’s great when you make 70% of them, but that seems to be happening less and less. Meanwhile, the best scorer in the game goes possession after possession without touching the rock. My biggest problem with him is he clearly thinks he’s a better player than Durant. That’s not a strategy conducive to winning.

Presti could have, and in my opinion should have dumped Westbrook on a team for a good young point guard who is years away from a big payday or a veteran who can be an extension of Scott Brooks on the floor. Even Harden himself would have been an excellent solution at point guard.

But c’est la vie, Presti decided to hold on to one of the more volatile personalities in the NBA and dumped his 23-year-old Sixth Man of the Year.

My second problem here is the haul he got for Harden. Presti brings in Kevin Martin, who was a good scorer in Houston, but who else was going to score for them? Martin is a solid talent, moves off the ball well and has a good, albeit funky-looking jumper, but he has been apathetic to coaching in the past.

My big problem is after that they landed Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks. Picking in the NBA draft can truly be a lottery experience. The Thunder have drafted well, yes, but there is also a lot of luck involved in that. They could have easily ended up with Greg Oden, OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet (who is ironically on the team this year) in the drafts that netted them Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

Obviously, only Presti knows what other offers were out there, but I can’t believe he got all he could for a man on the verge of becoming one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. If anyone had to go, Westbrook should have been the guy here. Only time will tell of course, but I seriously doubt any of the other teams in the West are sad to see Durant and Harden split up. They could have been a new generation Jordan-Pippen.

I’m afraid in the next five years Durant will have to endure some serious frustration with Westbrook and that this could end in tragedy for OKC.