Friday, April 15, 2011

My Picks

Just a quick post to get my picks on record (not that I'm willing to wager).

It seems many experts have gone mostly chalk for the first round matchups. It makes sense. It's hard to beat a favorite four times. So as much as one might like Memphis or Portland or even Denver there's a tendency to go with the top seeds.

The West

I hate the Spurs, although this season's incarnation is a little more tolerable since they often try to outscore opponents. They're still better than anybody in limiting the quality of possessions of opponents. By which I mean they play smarter than you do, don't take bad shots and can occasionally run you off the court with their three-point shooters. Their path to the playoffs is not that different from the Lakers but with better results. They've saved their big three for this time of the year. That is, they had until Pop played them in the final game and Ginobili hyperextended his right elbow. In a career filled with brilliant coaching moves, this might be Coach Pop's worst. He says he wanted them to be sharp but if you sit them for the Lakers then why not the Suns. Don't get it.

The Grizz have played well without Rudy Gay, rallying behind (of all people) Tony Allen. They play good defense and create a lot of turnovers. They also turn the ball over a good deal themselves. Give Z-Bo the edge over Duncan but I don't think they have enough O to win four. Spurs in six.

My boys were five seconds and a Kobe three away from playing Portland. NOLA should be a much easier task even with Bynum a bit hobbled. I think he'll play Sunday for limited minutes. CP3 is not the same player he was two years ago. David West is one of those Laker killers but he's hurt. Carl Landry manages to beat up on the Lakes too, but he's not as good as West. I like the Lakers in five.

A lot of people love the Blazers in this matchup especially now that Gerald Wallace is on board. I'm kind of on the fence. Whenever I watch Portland, I'm not all that impressed. Batum is decent and no one is laughing at the Wesley Matthews signing now. But Aldridge is the key. In fact, I'd say whoever has the bigger series between Aldridge and Nowitski will determine which team wins. I'll take Portland in seven.

Thank god both of these teams are on the other side of the bracket although I think the Lakers could take Denver because of matchups. The fashionable pick is OKC and who could disagree after the last two games between the two. Still, I think the Nuggets make it interesting. Thunder in seven.

The East

I agree with the idea of playoff teams being able to focus on taking away Rose's scoring and generally making things tough for him. The Pacers are not the team to do it though. I like Chicago in five.

For all the talk of the Bulls' great second half, there's no team I'd rather not play than the Heat. In fact, I'm tempted to pick them to go all the way even though I hate their guts. Philly is banged up but I still see them taking a game. Miami in five.

As bad as the Cs played down the stretch, they rarely looked worse than the Knicks. New York could take two but neither will be on the Celtics' home court. Boston in six.

Two teams with almost zero heart. The Hawks are a mess as usual. And for all the talk of how Mike D'Antoni's system can't win championships, you rarely hear people say the same of Stan Van's three-happy offense in Orlando. I'll say it. It's a terrible, feast-or-famine system which is a shame because they're a good defensive team. Howard has molded himself into a great player but as much as I like Stan Van, I think he should get even more out of his center. Seriously, why isn't he averaging 30 points a game? Atlanta won the season series 3-1 but I don't see them winning more than two here. Magic in six.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How to beat the Heat

The Heat may be a dynasty in the making, a new prototype for the future NBA championship contenders and an instant highlight machine. But there’s a good chance this season after the hype has worn off that they will resemble an NFL ball control offense that needs to grind out wins. That’s my prediction for the NBA’s biggest non-lockout story heading into the 2010-11 season. I’m not saying there won’t be flashes of brilliance, especially now that LeBron James has assumed the Magic Johnson role. Put together two of the top five players in the L, especially ones as physically gifted as James and Dwayne Wade, and you’ve got some serious posterization potential. Add in Chris Bosh’s penchant for filling the stat sheet and I think Miami could win 60 games. But it might not be that pretty.

My reasons? Take a look at last year’s free throw leaders per attempt. James was number 3. Wade was four. Both attempted over 700 free throws. And you don’t have to glance far to see Bosh at 7. He shot 590 in 70 games. Added together the big three shot 26 free throws a game. That’s more than all but seven teams averaged in 2009-10.

While all three players might see a drop in their statistical averages across the board, free throw attempts should remain high particularly for James and Wade. The two perimeter players have made a healthy living by taking opponents off the dribble and drawing fouls. Some would say too healthy considering how NBA referees often bail them out. Still, last season free throw makes accounted for over 25 percent of the points per game for both players.

Bosh’s case is a little different. Even though he’s 6’11”, he is far more comfortable facing the basket. In fact, anyone who had the misfortune to watch the Raptors a lot can tell you just how boring Toronto’s offense could be. It centered around Jose Calderon getting Bosh the ball at the elbows, free throw line extended or occasionally on the block and then the latter going one-on-one.

That’s why Bosh’s numbers are even more skewed. A third of his points usually come from the charity stripe. Of the three, Bosh knows his game will probably have to change the most. Miami just doesn’t have the height to compete without Bosh doing some dirty work down low and he has vowed to do just that. Which means that while his scoring average (24 per last season) should dip, his free throws may not.

I know what you’re thinking. The Heat cannot be defended with LBJ handling the ball and either taking it to the rim or setting up Wade, Bosh or a wing like Mike Miller. But teams can avoid a seemingly endless (and boring) march to the free throw line by doing something even more boring: Playing zone. Miami’s signing of Miller was intended to offset opponents’ ability to pack the lane. He shot 48 percent from three last season (in just 54 games). Now Miller has hurt the thumb on his shooting hand and is out until January. But even with Miller, I’d definitely experiment with a zone against Miami. Wade is just a 29 percent career shooter from three. And even though James has come a long way with his jumper, long range is not his strength. The key in playing against a zone for Miami may be Bosh working the baseline for easy buckets since the Heat have virtually no low post presence. Teams like Boston, Orlando and the Lakers can beat the Heat by wearing them down inside, limiting possessions, and muddying the track Miami plans to run on.

As much hype as has been bandied about (like Jeff Van Gundy saying Miami will win 70 games and not lose back-to-back all season), Miami is still something of an experiment. This team has serious firepower, but it’s not the Showtime Lakers or the “Seven-seconds-or-less” Suns. In addition, the preseason has shown the team is thin, perhaps Indianapolis Colts-thin with Wade playing the Bob Sanders role. From what I’ve heard James is on a mission and is trying to put his stamp on the team in practices. That’s good because every team in the league wants to take down the Heat. In the end, any karmic justice on behalf of the other 29 NBA teams may come in the Heat being frustrated by a zone, which may not be all that fun to watch.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What Happened

In a few years we may look back on Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semis with little more than simple amusement. It was supposed to be a defining moment for LeBron James, the time when, bad elbow or not, he willed them to a 3-2 series lead and eventually on to his first NBA title. Instead an old but still heart-willing Boston Celtics went into Cleveland and won a game few expected them to, won again in Game 6 in Boston and ended James’ career as a Cav.

At the time, the Cavs’ loss registered as a knock to James’ legacy. So often it was the team that surrounded him that was not up to the task. One need only remember the Eastern Conference finals exit against Orlando from the year before to cite an example of the cast not being up to the range of the star. But this year’s Game 5 (and to a lesser extent, Games 4 and 6) was on James. Not only did he have a bad game. He looked like we had never seen him before, as if he was going through a crisis beyond the basketball court. He looked resigned, defeated, like a goner. He was.

The greatest players, even Michael Jordan, have all tasted defeat. But what makes Jordan the greatest basketball player ever is not just that his losses on the big stage were so few, but that he always believed he could win no matter the circumstances. That is what separates Jordan, Bird, Magic, and Kobe to name a few from everyone else. Today, the same cannot be said of James. He may well win a bushel of titles in Miami but he will never garner the respect winning “on his own” with good but not great supporting players deserves. And any talk of LBJ as the greatest ever is over.

James’ signing with Miami has created a whole lot of negative karma and not just in Cleveland. Few outside of South Florida want to see him succeed now even though now one has to believe he’ll eventually win a championship. “The Decision” show itself was so contrived that some have likened it to a pro wrestler turning from good guy to heel. The analogy is not far from the mark although I think it gives James too much credit. The question now is will success in South Beach change our opinion of him? LBJ must think so and he’s probably right. Because “The Decision” revealed more than a future place of employment for a 25-year-old star. It showed once again that we, as fans, are suckers.

We tuned in (a whopping 9.6 rating for the 15 minutes leading up to James’ revelation). How could we not? Our addiction to sports and sports news runs so deep that we hung on every new free agency development like dispatches from a war zone where a loved one is serving. Except for us, the week (wow, an entire week) of free agency and The Decision felt more real and more important than a war. And that should be deeply disturbing. I would like to think few came away feeling good about the whole thing, but I’m not so certain.

In the recently published book Although Of Course In The End You Become Yourself, A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, the man himself speaks of an endpoint to our addiction when we fail to discipline ourselves regarding how much time we spend being passively entertained and society itself grinds to a halt. We’re not there yet and perhaps the true lesson of “The Decision” is that we may never get there. We’ll keep tuning in, trying to commune with people we can’t touch and who can’t touch us. We’re eager to see if Wade and LBJ can play together and how the Heat will fill out its roster.

The corporatization of sports is inescapable. I’m old enough (but not too old) to remember when outfield walls were one solid color and not a patchwork of advertising. Still, I live in LA. I can barely stick my head out the window without being bombarded with another frickin’ Geico ad. But the degree of cynicism powering The Decision was on an entirely different level. It was pure greed in a tattered guise of goodwill.

Of course, the James’ camp doesn’t see that. They point to the ratings, the $2.9 million of free advertising time and $6 million in ad revenue raised (all of which was supposed to go to charity, although I’ve only seen $2.5 mil as going to Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Where did the rest go?) as a reason to down the line subject us to another one of these things. Will next year be “Melo’s Moment”? Oh wait, there might not be a next year thanks to the anticipated lockout. Don't worry, NBA, we'll still be here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Coach Wooden

I met John Wooden a couple of times. The first meeting, when I was eight, came in his office at UCLA. He had retired the year before but kept an office at school. My father, 84 years now and counting, was doing some promotional work at the time that incorporated the Pyramid of Success. I'm not sure how he did it, but he managed to get us a few minutes with Coach. Wooden was very warm and engaging. He offered me jelly beans from a jar on his desk, talked to us for about 20 minutes and signed my Pyramid of Success which I still have somewhere.

The second time I met up with Coach was at one of his basketball camps in Thousand Oaks. All the campers had one-on-one time with Wooden and when I reminded him we had met before he claimed to remember me. I didn't doubt him.

One would be hard pressed to find a player more identified with Wooden than Bill Walton. The one time I visited Bill's home in San Diego for a story on Luke, Big Bill gave me a book. Not one of his own, but one of Wooden's. He signed it: "To John, Learn from the master teachers. Go Bruins. Bill Walton UCLA '74."

In my interview, Bill managed to compare Jerry Garcia to Wooden and I can't read the quote without hearing the Big Redhead's voice. "It's the creativity and the imagination, the electricity, the rhythm, the explosiveness, delivering peak performance on command, making other people's lives fun, creating joy and happiness for others, the leadership, the willingness to make the hard decisions, keeping everybody together. They are definitely the same person."

Walton and Wooden are linked forever, but the one relationship Coach had with a player that to this day has fascinated me was with Kareem. I don't think Wooden ever referred to Kareem by his Muslim name. It was always Lew or Lewis. That bugged me and I'm not sure if Kareem has ever addressed it. Regardless, Kareem had great affection for Coach. And I'll always remember the last time I saw the two of them together. It was at the Stanford game in 2007 in which UCLA celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1967 team. At halftime, the team gathered at halfcourt and when the ceremony was over Kareem escorted Wooden back to his seat. There was a purity in that moment that overwhelmed me. The middle-aged Abdul-Jabbar towered over the cane-assisted nonagenarian as the two walked off the floor not arm-in-arm, but with hands clasped.

Goodnight, Coach.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lakers Chances

Jeff Van Gundy had an interesting thought late in the Lakers loss to San Antonio on April 4th. The gist was that if Kobe has a poor shooting night and the Lakers are without Bynum they become a very beatable team. Well, Kobe played today and for the third straight game had trouble shooting the ball. I think it's still the finger but his knee injury certainly doesn't help. He had very little lift today and had trouble going to the hole.

Kobe is banged up. Bynum is still hurt. Odom, Artest, Farmar, Sasha and Brown all have injuries as well. The Lakers are hurting and their bench has been a joke for a good month now. But the fact remains that since the All-Star break LA has not played with any rhythm and little purpose. With today's loss, Orlando holds the home court advantage should the two teams meet in the Finals.

So who is to blame? Well, I would start with the coach. By his own admission, PJ has said when guys start tuning you out it's time to move on. A coach not only has to prepare a team for each opponent but to get that team geared for the playoffs. For months now, even when they were relatively healthy, the Lakers have looked poor on defense. They've shown flashes. Last month's game at Houston was a revelation, at least the second quarter. But most of the time the effort is not there. It's Phil's job to coax that effort out of his team. It's Phil's job get the team to move the ball on offense. It's Phil's job to sit Fish when he's not contributing. It's Phil's job to inspire.

Today was another very uninspired effort. Even when they closed the gap late in the fourth, the Blazers' Andre Miller got a layup to put Portland back up by five. I've been hearing about the Lakers defensive philosophy all year. The idea of guards funneling opponents to the middle. It doesn't work. Pau is a mediocre shot blocker and a terrible pick-and-roll defender. Bynum is slow to come from the weak side.

As I've said so many times before, the Lakers seem to survive by Kobe bailing them out with his unbelievable shot making while they give up layups on the other end. And now Kobe can't even make free throws. He better get well soon or the Lakers might be toast in the first round. They can't simply rely on their offense keeping them in games. With five minutes left today, they had scored four points in the fourth Q and were something like 4-20 from three on the game.

Just once, I'd like to see LA come out and dominate from beginning to end in a game. Look at some of the first quarters the Cavs have had this year, 40-45 points against some teams. By my account, the Lakes have played maybe three quality games since the beginning of March. Three! Wins at Phoenix and San Antonio and one against Utah at home. Mixed in those 20 games are the three game road losing streak against Miami, Charlotte and Orlando, a two-point win over Toronto and three-point win over GS (both at home), embarassing losses at OKC, NO and ATL, a 19-point loss at home against the Spurs, and today's loss against a Portland team without Brandon Roy.

LO says every team turns on a switch when it comes to the playoffs. The best thing you can say about the Lakers now is they've been saving energy for a month and a half with their switch set at "off".

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Lisa Salters

Someone give the girl a copy of Game of Death.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


"And then Amalfitano walked into his devastated front yard and looked up and down the street, craning his neck he didn’t see any car or Rosa and he gripped Dieste’s book tightly, which he was still holding in his left hand. And he looked up at the sky and saw the moon, too big and too wrinkled, although it wasn’t night yet. And then he returned to his ravaged backyard and for a few seconds he stopped, looking left and right, ahead and behind, trying to see his shadow, but although it was still daytime and the sun was still shining in the west, toward Tijuana, he couldn’t see it. And then his eyes fell on the four rows of cord, each tied at one end to a kind of miniature soccer goal, two posts perhaps six feet tall planted in the ground, and a third post bolted horizontally across the top, making them sturdier, the cords strung from this top bar to hooks fixed in the side of the house. It was the clothesline, although the only things he saw hanging on it were a shirt of Rosa’s, white with ocher embroidery around the neck, and a pair of underpants and two towels, still dripping. In the corner, in a brick hut, was the washing machine. For a while he didn’t move, breathing with his mouth open, leaning on the horizontal bar of the clothesline. Then he went into the hut as if he were short of oxygen, and from a plastic bag with the logo of the supermarket where he went with his daughter to do the weekly shopping, he took out three clothespins, which he persisted in calling perritos, as they were called in Chile, and with them he clamped the book and hung it from one of the cords and then went back into the house, feeling much calmer."

The Part about Amalfitano, 2666 by Roberto Bolano

Who hasn’t, even among book lovers (especially among book lovers), thought of clothespinning a particularly irritating tome? Or burying a book in one’s garden ( To let nature really have at it, in the same way it erodes rock or bone. As Roberto Bolano acknowledges, the idea was Duchamp’s. The surrealist once encouraged his sister to first buy and then fasten a geometry book from strings hanging from her balcony. He called it “Unhappy Readymade” with the idea being for the wind to “go through the book, chose its own problems, turn and tear out the pages.”

I’m hoping Pau Gasol won’t be tempted to do the same with 2666, the book Lakers coach Phil Jackson recently gave him. I read Bolano’s final book last year and now rank it among my favorites, often brutal, but beautifully so. At first I wondered whether Gasol received the English or Spanish edition. But the LA Times said it was the 898-page edition which means English. As my friend Steve points out, the paperback Spanish edition runs around 1100 pages. It sometimes takes longer to say things in Spanish, although I’m sure Gasol would prefer to read en Espanol.

Phil’s annual rite of giving out books to members of the team got me thinking about what books I’d give to my beloved Lakers including ones from my own library. So here it is just in time for their return from an eight-game roadie:

Ron Artest – The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
From one New York City hustler to another. I love this book. I first read it growing up out here in LA and when I lived in New York I used to read it on the subway on my way to parties and the like. I have the thin, pocketsized paperback with the gangly, seated Carroll on the cover. There’s another one with the late JC in a tank top with his arms just popping out. God just molds some people to be junkies. The caveat is not to give Ron Ron the Leonardo DiCaprio cover edition. I like Leo and all but his basketball playing in the film version set hoops films back 20 years.

Shannon Brown – Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Not expecting a book report from Shannon any time soon, but title seems apropos for this year’s slam dunk champ.

Kobe Bryant – No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
When you think about it, Kobe is like the NBA equivalent to Anton Chigurh, a cold-blooded killer with a code who leaves nothing in the chamber (see Nike ad). “You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do,” Chigurh says to Carla Jean Moss moments before dispatching her. “I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases.”

Andrew Bynum – The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (lifetime subscription)
It’s hard to finds a book for a 22-year-old making 12.5 million a year. This subscription gives him the ability to argue going under the knife versus in-season, three-month rehab. Sit down, Gary Vitti.

Jordan Farmar – Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
People in Los Angeles are afraid to merge on freeways, or in Jordan’s case consistently hit the three.

Derek Fisher – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Clutch shooter. Union rep. Caring father. Great guy. Fish is all of these things, but like Jay Gatsby he’s got a dark side as well. He occasionally flops and some consider him to be a dirty player. The guy is crafty. For all we know, he could be secretly be running a bootlegging operation.

Pau Gasol - 2666 by Roberto Bolano.
Honorable Mention, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. The title eludes to the fact that you can play around with the order of Cortazar’s narrative, reading it straight through or following his suggested skips at the end of each chapter. It reminds me of Pau’s recent play. He’s great one night. Skip ahead and he goes 5-14 and misses six free throws.

D.J. Mbenga – The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard.
Ballard’s tale of a doctor who discovers a third Nile is hallucinatory read set in a fictional land that could be Mbenga’s native DRC. Not that he pines for his homeland.

Adam Morrison – Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
I actually gave Adam a book once (Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces). This time I'm giving him Tower's book of short stories to send him on his way to his next destination. Plus the title sounds a bit like a summation of AmMo’s career. Note: Nothing about Che. I know he’s exhausted the subject. Honorable Mention: Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary by Bertrand M. Patenaude.

Lamar Odom – The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner
Just looking at the title sitting on his shelf should make LO’s mouth water. Honorable Mention: Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Josh Powell – Edisto by Padgett Powell (no relation)
I don’t know much about JP other than he can roll out of bed and hit a fifteen footer. But he’s from Charleston, SC, a jumper away from the setting of Padgett’s best novel.

Sasha Vujacic – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I’m going big guns here. The current Mr. Maria Sharapova needs to know how a Russian woman thinks and this classic offers the best insight.

Luke Walton – Wooden, A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by Coach John Wooden with Steve Jamison (Bill Walton autographed copy)
Learn from the master teachers, Luke. And no parties in Papa’s house.