For our next installment in the Scribes of the NBA Interview Series ETB is proud to present freelance hoops writer David Friedman. David’s work can be seen regularly on his blog 20 Second Timeout, a favorite here at Empty the Bench. It’s one of the most consistently well-written and researched blogs on the net that breaks down all of today’s NBA action while also taking time to break down the great players of yesteryear. Be sure to check it out.
As a freelance writer, David’s work has been featured in a number of publications and websites including Hoop, Lindy’s Pro Basketball, Basketball Times, Basketball Digest, NBCSports.com, HoopsHype.com, ProBasketballNews.com, Legends of Basketball (the official website of the NBRPA), The Biz of Basketball, 411Mania.com and The United States Chess Federation website.
He’s a prolific scribe to say the least, and we couldn’t be more pleased to have him on board.
Without further delay, ten questions from ETB and ten answers from Mr. Friedman ranging from the 2008 NBA Finals, the great Dr. J, the new basketball metrics, living the mustachioed life and more.
ETB: Did Kobe Bryant’s underwhelming performance in the NBA Finals change your opinion of him in any way?
David Friedman: That is an interesting question. Let’s begin by looking at the final numbers for two players from that series.
One player averaged 43.0 mpg, 25.7 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.67 spg and 3.83 tpg. He shot .405 from the field, .321 from three point range and .796 from the free throw line.
The other player averaged 38.8 mpg, 21.8 ppg, 6.3 apg, 4.5 rpg, 1.17 spg and 3.67 tpg. He shot .432 from the field, .393 from three point range and .830 from the free throw line.
Without analyzing matchups and examining other contextual factors, which of these players had the better series statistically? The first player scored more, got slightly more rebounds and had a lot more steals. The second player shot somewhat better from the field–particularly on three pointers–and the free throw line. Turnovers were a wash. Of course, the second player’s team won the series and Paul Pierce was rightly selected as the Finals MVP; the first player in this example is Kobe Bryant.
The reason that I bring up these numbers is that I don’t think that most people really bothered to take the time to look at them. There is a perception that Kobe played terribly and that Pierce reached a new level. I covered the first Celtics-Pacers game of the year and this is what I wrote about Pierce:
“…he had an impact on what happened in the third quarter just by being on the court; the threat that he poses offensively means that in future games he can also have that kind of an impact even if he does not have a second quarter scoring outburst because if teams trap him from the start of the game to prevent a Pierce scoring run then Allen or someone else will be open. The only way to fully understand this kind of dynamic is to actually watch a team play and to really pay attention to what they are trying to do and how the other team is countering those things. Plus/minus can hint at some of these things, but Pierce’s impact–and the impact of any other player who must be double-teamed–is no less real even on occasions when his teammates do not make the open shots that his presence creates. Only a handful of players have that kind of effect on a game, guys like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, and a few others; sometimes their teammates take advantage of playing four on three and sometimes they don’t but a player who commands that kind of coverage is more valuable than players who don’t, regardless of what their respective statistics might indicate.”
So, I was saying in November that Pierce can have an impact on a game rivaling that of Kobe, Duncan and LeBron. It does not surprise me that Pierce could have the kind of series that he did in the Finals, particularly when being guarded mostly by Vlad Rad, Luke Walton and Vujacic. Many of Pierce’s three pointers came in transition after bad Lakers’ offensive possessions and that was the aspect of the Finals that surprised me. I picked the Lakers to win because I thought that Boston would have trouble containing the Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol screen/roll action. When the Lakers execute that action effectively it results in a dunk for Gasol, a wide open three on the weak side or an open shot for Kobe. The Lakers simply murdered San Antonio and Utah (last year’s champion and Western Conference finalist respectively) with that action so I thought that they could run it effectively against Boston as well.
What happened in the Finals is that Gasol played a lot more tentatively than he did in the previous series. He did not set his screens aggressively, he did not roll to the hoop with purpose and when he caught the ball in the post he often made soft moves that resulted in missed shots or steals. How many times did Rondo just drop down and take the ball from Gasol? There was one particular play when Gasol set a screen and halfheartedly rolled to the hoop while Kobe’s pass to where Gasol should have been sailed out of bounds (that’s a turnover for Kobe, by the way, even though Gasol made a bad play). Kobe made a gesture indicating “cut harder” and Gasol pointed to his chest acknowledging that this is exactly what he should have done. Of course, some people watching that interaction who don’t understand basketball think that it reflects Kobe being a bad teammate when in reality he was being a coach on the floor. You may recall Magic doing similar things with a young Vlade Divac, which is not to compare Kobe to Magic or Gasol to Divac from a skills standpoint but just a reminder of how a team’s best player must provide guidance to his teammates to help them perform the way that they should.
In the Finals, Kobe led the Lakers in minutes, scoring, assists and steals. Kobe received little help from his teammates, other than Vujacic in one game, Gasol sporadically and Odom even more sporadically. Also, much like the 2004 Finals, the Lakers had serious issues with guarding the one, two and three positions. Basically, whoever Kobe did not guard went off. The Lakers had some success putting Kobe on Rondo and having Kobe roam to help the players who were guarding Pierce and Allen but the Celtics adjusted well to that by game six. Kobe guarded Pierce better than any other Laker did and most of Pierce’s points when Kobe was assigned to him came in transition.
Kobe Bryant Photo Credit: Icon SMI
I consider LeBron James to be the second best player in the NBA. He averaged 26.7 ppg on .355 field goal shooting (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game versus Boston in the 2008 playoffs. So why did the Cavs push Boston to seven games while the Lakers lost in six? The Cavs are a much better defensive team than the Lakers and the Lakers did not take advantage of the excellent offensive execution that helped them to defeat the Spurs, Jazz and Nuggets. By the way, Kobe averaged 29.2 ppg on .533 field goal shooting and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game when the Lakers beat the Spurs, a team that completely throttled James in the 2007 Finals (22.0 ppg, .356 field goal shooting, .200 three point shooting, 5.8 turnovers per game). The difference between Kobe and LeBron is that Kobe can consistently make midrange jumpers and three point shots. I said during last year’s Finals that the Spurs would not be able to guard Kobe the way that they guarded LeBron (i.e., sagging off of him, daring him to shoot jumpers while sealing off passing lanes) and this year’s playoffs proved that I was correct about that.
For the reasons listed above, the Finals did not change my opinion that Kobe Bryant–based on his skill set and work ethic–is the best all-around player in the NBA, nor did LeBron’s performance against Boston change my opinion that he is the second best all-around player in the NBA.
More Q & A with David ranging from Artis Gilmore to Jim Barnett after the jump…
ETB: A lack of toughness, especially on the defensive end of the floor, doomed the Lakers. Is the return of Andrew Bynum enough to solve the problem or does Mitch Kupchak need to look outside the organization?
Friedman: This was Pau Gasol’s first trip this deep in the playoffs. He did well against two physical teams–Utah and San Antonio–but was not quite up to the challenge against Boston. I think that a full training camp under Jackson’s tutelage will help him in that regard.
At small forward, the Lakers were simply overmatched defensively. Walton and V-Rad cannot guard Pierce no matter how “tough” they try to be. A healthy, in shape Ariza could help in that spot.
Bynum has the physical tools to help the Lakers inside but it is important to remember that he is a young player who has one good half season under his belt. He has yet to play a good, complete season, let alone be any kind of force in the playoffs. It remains to be seen how well he recovers from his injury and then what kind of player he will become.
With all of the above factors in mind, I don’t think that the Lakers need to make a radical change now but if there were some kind of guarantee that Bynum is going to be healthy and reasonably productive then I would look for an opportunity to trade Odom for a legit starting small forward. I don’t think that Gasol, Odom and Bynum can effectively play together but I’d be concerned about losing Odom’s rebounding before I knew that Bynum will remain healthy.
ETB: Do you think Phil Jackson was outcoached by (shudder) Doc Rivers during the Finals?
Friedman: I think that Doc Rivers coached well in the NBA Finals and I don’t think that he was–or is–as bad of a coach as some people seem to think. The hardest things for a coach to do are to get his players to play hard and to play defense. Rivers got the entire Celtics team to buy into his program instantly and for the entire season and playoff run. That is very impressive.
My question for anyone who thinks that Jackson got outcoached would be, “What alternative moves could he/should he have made?” Jackson could not make a trade in the middle of the series to acquire a legit starting small forward. Contrary to popular belief–and in line with what I said all season long–the Lakers’ bench was not nearly as good as people thought. The Celtics had a deeper team, so Doc Rivers had more options.
I don’t think Jackson had a great series–he did not come up with any stunning moves–but I don’t think that he was outcoached as much as Doc Rivers simply had more weapons. Jackson’s move of having Kobe guard Rondo while serving as a defensive roamer helped the Lakers win a couple games and could perhaps have turned the series around had the Lakers not infamously blown a huge lead.
ETB: What got you interested in the NBA? Talk about one or two of your favorite and earliest NBA memories. Is there one NBA moment that stands out above the rest?
Friedman: I’ve been following the NBA for about 30 years now (since I was a very young child) so it is impossible to pick one moment. The earliest NBA memories I have are about Dr. J, who was, is and always will be my favorite player of all-time. One of the first basketball books I read was “Basketball’s Biggest Stars” by Angelo Resciniti. It contained chapter length bios of Erving, Magic, Bird, Bob Lanier, Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore and several other great players. Each chapter began with a quote from the player. Erving was the first chapter in the book and his quote was, “I put the most pressure on myself because of my ambitions to be the best basketball player ever.” That made a big impression on me and I’ve always had the opinion that if you have the talent to be the best at something then your goal should be to settle for nothing less than the best. That is why I have so much respect for Kobe–he is trying to extract every last drop out of his talent. On the other hand, guys like Shaq and Rasheed–who are both very accomplished in their own rights–seem content at times to coast and do not push themselves to the limit at all times.
I was a huge 76ers fan, so my favorite early basketball memories mostly involve things that Erving did or big games that the Sixers won. The 1983 championship stands out. The loss in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals was very disappointing. I am not quite old enough to remember the ABA but I have watched, read and devoured everything that I can find about it and have been fortunate enough to interview many ABA players and coaches including, of course, Erving himself. I think that one of the most underrated performances of all-time is Erving’s effort in the 1976 ABA Finals, when he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots as his undermanned Nets defeated a powerful Nuggets team that had two HoFers and a HoF coach.
ETB: A lot of new statistical tools from Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins to John Hollinger’s PER have emerged in the last few years in an attempt to quantify basketball proficiency, often at the expense of actually watching games and film. What can’t this type of stats capture, and what types of players and teams do they do a disservice to?
Friedman: These numbers are a tool, a means to an end but not the end itself. Any formula is only as good as the person who created it and it inherently includes that person’s biases. Some people look at statistical formulas and think that they are objective, irrefutable reality but that is not the case, at least not in basketball. That is why I go into such detail in my game recaps to explain exactly what each player did on a certain play and what each player was supposed to do. These statistical formulas (PER, Wages of Wins, etc.) just capture one interpretation of reality. The other thing that has to be mentioned is that NBA scorekeeping is not 100% accurate either. As I showed during some Hornets’ games, Chris Paul was credited with assists on plays when he did not even pass the ball to the shooter or when he passed the ball to a shooter who took multiple dribbles and made several fakes before shooting. So even if the stat formulas were perfect this is a case of garbage in, garbage out: if players are getting credit for assists that aren’t assists then the player ratings are going to be skewed.
Stat formulas can be a useful tool in the hands of someone who actually understands player evaluation but I don’t believe that you can just put some numbers in a formula and correctly rate or evaluate players. For instance, in the example I cited in answer to your first question, when Kobe’s pass went out of bounds all the stat formulas “know” is that Kobe committed a turnover. They don’t “know” that Gasol did not roll to the hoop the way that he was supposed to or that Gasol would not be open in the first place if Kobe had not drawn a double-team. So if all you do is chalk that play up as a turnover for Kobe and punch that into a formula then you come up with the nonsensical conclusion that Wages of Wins did, namely that Gasol performed better in the Finals than Kobe did.
ETB: We’re trying to get a lot of opinions on this: Who is the most underrated player in the NBA today? Feel free to mention any others that come to mind.
Friedman: This is an abstract question because it presupposes that there is some consensus “rating” for all NBA players but that is clearly not the case; for example, I think that people who voted LeBron James fourth or fifth in the MVP race underrated him. Of course, I understand that this is not really what you meant with your question but I am just trying to point out that selecting a “most underrated player” is a much more subjective question than if you had simply asked me to compare two particular players based on their skill sets.
I also think that there are a lot more overrated players than underrated ones. I agree with Charles Barkley that everyone in the NBA is a good player but I disagree with the hype machine that acts as if there are 30 elite players in the NBA; there are 5-10 elite players in the NBA, max. Then there are some All-Stars, some very good players and so on down the line.
With those disclaimers out of the way, I think that Joe Johnson, Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala are underrated in the sense that I assume you meant. Daniel Gibson is not as good an all around player as those guys but I think that he is underrated; he is a B.J. Armstrong-like player (I thought that Armstrong was underrated, too, though he did make one All-Star team). I think that David West is underrated in the sense that people got so caught up in promoting Chris Paul for MVP that they acted like West is entirely a product of Paul’s passing. West has a deadly jump shot and great post moves. As I alluded to earlier, Paul is credited with a lot of assists on passes to West that do not fit any reasonable definition of assist. If those assists were properly credited and people actually paid attention to West’s skill set then they would appreciate just how good West really is.
Andre Iguodala Photo Credit: Icon SMI
I don’t know how highly people “rate” Al Thornton but I call him “beast in training.” If he doesn’t follow in the inglorious Clipper footsteps of Danny Manning, Norm Nixon, Ron Harper, Shaun Livingston, etc. and blow out a knee or an Achilles he is going to be frightening to watch pretty soon.
ETB: Which NBA team is going to come out and surprise a lot of people this year by making the playoffs?
Friedman: Again, not to avoid the question but I don’t know what other people expect so I don’t know what will surprise them. Last year I kept hearing that Cleveland would not make the playoffs but I always considered them an Eastern Conference contender. The Suns supposedly were not going to make the playoffs after the Shaq deal. My point is that sometimes people are surprised just because they don’t know what the heck they are talking about.
The rosters of several teams are still in flux, which is why I prefer to make such pronouncements a bit closer to the start of the season.
I think that Cleveland will once again surprise people who think that the Cavs are a one man team and apparently do not understand that the Cavs not only have one great player but they also are a terrific defensive and rebounding team.
As for a total darkhorse, I’ll take the Pacers. They only missed the playoffs by one game but I don’t hear a lot of people talking about them as a possible playoff team this year, so I get the sense that if they make the playoffs a lot of people will be surprised.
ETB: NBA League Pass is a beautiful thing. One thing we love is getting a chance to hear some of the great local announcing crews from around the league. Which local guys stand out as some of your favorites? Are there any crews you can’t stand?
Friedman: I did a post a while ago about Jim Barnett from the Warriors–he is great, a real hidden gem. He really understands the game and explains it well. I can’t think of a local crew that particularly gets on my nerves.
ETB: Are the Los Angeles Lakers going to win the NBA Championship in 2008-09?
Friedman: This is like the question of taking Tiger Woods (when healthy) or the field. The odds are usually against any one player or team winning a title. In other words, even if the Lakers have the best chance that chance is probably less than 50%. I think that the Lakers have a very good opportunity to win the title, along with a handful of other teams (in no particular order): San Antonio, Boston, Cleveland. I think that there is a better than 50% chance that one of those four teams will win the 2009 championship. Utah and New Orleans will be right up there but something seems to be missing for both of those teams. Detroit is getting older and it will be interesting to see how the Pistons respond to the coaching change.
ETB: Last question, and it’s a toughie. You shaved the ‘stache off a couple weeks before the Lakers’ Finals exit. Do you feel at all responsible for jinxing them? Can we assume it will remain for the entirety of the Lake Show’s 2009 playoff run?
Friedman: I’m not sure how to answer this because I have never understood the fascination with mustaches, other than maybe the ones that Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage had because they were so unique. I had a mustache and then I shaved it. There is really nothing more to it than that. I can say with certainty that my facial hair did not affect the Lakers’ playoff run, nor did their playoff run have anything to do with me shaving my mustache.
More ETB’s Scribes of the NBA Interview Series:
– J.E. Skeets of Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie
– David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout
– Ron Hitley of Hornets 24/7
– Ryne “Odenized” Nelson of SLAMonline
– Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty and FanHouse
– Brett Hainline of Queen City Hoops
– Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge
– Kurt of Forum Blue and Gold
– Brian Powell of Awful Announcing
– Lee Grammier of The Dream Shake
– Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead
– Scott Carefoot of Raptor Blog
– Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Part 1
– Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Part 2
– Matt Watson of AOL FanHouse and Detroit Bad Boys
– Natalie Sitto of Need4Sheed.com