But first, a thesis on how Phil Jackson (and Kobe Bryant) created a monster named Andrew Bynum.
Phil Jackson, upset with Andrew Bynum's lengthening timetable for recovery from knee surgery, has announced to the world that Bynum, a would-be star making eight figures, perhaps ought to be a situational, short-minutes player ... like Yao Ming. It might be the closest Phil's ever come to flipping the bird at one of his players, and it tells of a real, potentially Shaq-like disconnect between the legendary coach and the ingenue.
It's a truly absurd suggestion; the only reason Jackson made it was to get additional press for his displeasure with Bynum and to get Bynum's blood going. This is the Zen Master, after all. He knows exactly what he's doing. But while "what he's doing" may help the Lakers this season by booting Bynum into gear, and while it certainly will help Jackson's already rock-solid reputation as a brilliant motivator, are these tactics counter to the long-term interests of the Lakers?
Bynum, after all, is about to turn 23 years old. The Lakers' core is much, much older, with Kobe Bryant already 32, Pau Gasol 30, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom both nearly 31. You can win into your 30s -- the Celtics have helped prove that. But no one counts Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce as the "future" of the Celtics; that's Rajon Rondo. Bynum is L.A.'s Rondo, the hope that the team won't fall off the face of the Earth when the aging superstars do.
Needless to say, "futures of franchises" don't play short minutes. Jackson's threat is completely disingenuous; Phil's smart, and knows as well as anybody his team is much better with Bynum in the starting five. Last year, is the perfect example -- L.A. was a decent playoff team without Bynum, and an all-out destroyer with him. Jackson knows he needs Bynum to make a title defense run; otherwise, why would he care so much about what essentially comes down to an extra week or two Bynum thinks he needs in recovery? You don't see Jackson threatening Luke Walton, after all.
The question behind all the bluster has nothing to do about Bynum's value or Jackson's sincerity, though. It is whether Bynum is actually dragging his feet, and if so, where he learned it from. Far be it from me to blame Shaquille O'Neal for something a disciple is pulling, but this is straight out of the Most Dominant Ever's playbook. Waiting until mid-summer to have surgery in order to get some solid vacation in first is actually something Shaq did as a Laker. For Bynum, it's a copy-cat crime.
Most important about Shaq's tricks is that they were accepted by Jackson, who tried (in vain) to keep the peace between O'Neal and Kobe, all in the name of winning. Jackson granted O'Neal remarkable leeway in the early '00s, to the point of Kobe becoming furious at the lack of commitment, and resulting in not only Shaq being shoved out of town by Kobe, but in Jackson retiring in 2004. Bynum was 16 years old, young and impressionable, when all this went down as the biggest story in sports.
But later, when it suited his purpose, Jackson catered to Kobe's unsavory behavior. When Kobe took to a parking lot and ripped a young Bynum on video, Jackson was quiet. Why? Because Phil agreed -- Jackson wanted Kobe to get another star as badly as Bryant himself did. Phil values winning, and had particular interest in contending for a championship back when he was behind Red Auerbach in 2007. In silence, and by bowing to Kobe throughout training camp in '07, Jackson condoned the behavior.
You think Bynum didn't see that, too? He and Kobe may be best friends now, but under Phil Jackson, Bynum has learned that as long as you win, nothing else matters. And won they have, with two straight titles and huge victory totals. Jackson has taught Jackson to value the end, not the means. Training camp, November basketball -- that's not the end. April, May and June are. So if Jackson's disappointed in Bynum's selfish delay, he's only got himself to blame. (TZ)
J.R. Smith for Seamheads
Last night was Baseball Day in my house -- in other words, the time I go to a friend's birthday party at a bar where a playoff game is on. More importantly, this week the 2010-11 edition of Pro Basketball Prospectus hits the streets in PDF form, with paper copies to follow soon. You'll hear more in the near future about this indispensable volume. However, in the spirit of this strange confluence of events, I'm going to wander out into the middle of nowhere and say something about ... stats.
People think I'm anti-stats because I don't use a lot of numbers and can't count. Actually, it's more that I've chosen to focus on the parts of the sport that live on the other side of the planet. That doesn't mean, though, that I can imagine one without the other, or that total opposites aren't always completely and totally interdependent. Imagine what would happen if one half of our Earth fell off! It might also be the sport, which has proven somewhat more resistant to advanced analysis, or at least intent on hoarding mystery, than baseball. That's part of what I value about hoops, and yet it also drives me crazy at times.
Take, for instance, that marvelous invention OPS. It's just common sense that on-base percentage matters; getting on base, no matter how it's done, makes a difference. Walks not counting toward batting average isn't like free throws having a separate percentage. It's more like free throws not counting toward scoring average. At the same time, too many singles (or walks) is like a guy who can't hit the three and never gets to the line.
But back to J.R. Smith. It should come as no surprise that the numbers don't like Smith all that much. Yet, he's hardly the antithesis of a player that basketball's answer to OPS would love; he has the tools to be nearly the contrary. If Smith improved his decision-making, and more frequently used his superior athleticism to dunk over defenses and draw fouls, he could be a statistician's dream. Putting up a three can be a sign of silly bravura, but getting three points instead of two is a huge bargain if converted. There's no more high-percentage shot than a dunk. And players skilled at getting to the rim draw fouls, which means free throws -- called "free" for a reason.
Kevin Durant may not have Smith's raw physical ability, but length can compensate for athleticism and height alike. He scored more than anyone in the league last year, but did so with exactly the formula prescribed for Smith: good threes, aggressive drives, and free throws. Smith is the worst kind of post-Jordan miscreant -- looking only to bomb three and pull off highlight moves at the rim. He's the antithesis of the so-called Right Way. And yet tweak him a little, and put a good head on his shoulders, and he's a not-so-distant cousin of Kevin Durant, the most potent offensive force in the game, and a model of efficient production. The ability to leave defenders behind, or gasping for air in the lane, isn't exactly set shots and post moves. When it comes to smart offense, though, it looks a heck of a lot like stupid scoring. Just, you know, smarter. (BS)
The Works Season Previews: Memphis Grizzlies + Toronto Raptors
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. First, the Grizzlies..
TZ: Given Mike Conley's status as obvious weak link in an otherwise loaded starting five, is O.J. Mayo's move to point guard (at least part-time) even sensible? Is it an elaborate joke? Could Kobe or prime Vince Carter have played the point regularly?
BS: I am going to completely dodge this question, at least for now, because that Kobe/Carter contrast is worth exploring in itself. Vince, not in a million years. Yet Kobe, even if his assist totals wax and wane, and he's sometimes not the most willing passer (less true these days), has the poise, vision, and ball-handling to run the point. It would be unorthodox, no doubt, but in the spirit of mucking up everything having to do with position these days, Bryant's chops are a decent fit for the role. Joe Johnson, who at various times in his career has tried his hand at running the offense, also springs to mind. Actually, a long time ago, when rookie O.J. Mayo's star was on the rise, he reminded me at times of Johnson.
What does it all mean? If Mayo's being given a shot, someone up there thinks he's more in the Kobe/JJ lineage than Vince. The Grizzlies might as well try it and see if it sticks. The line between imaginative and ill-advised ain't where it used to be.
TZ: We know the idea that the NBA is full of thugs is absurd, and completely overstated. That said, Zach Randolph might actually be a bad dude. The NBA's bad dudes typically help make their teams interesting to watch. (Anyone who thinks the '03-05 Pacers weren't must-watch is loony.) Why hasn't that translated in Memphis? Is Z-Bo's dark aura drowned out by all the glee from Mayo to Rudy Gay to Marc Gasol?
BS: Another totally off-track response that, if I'm lucky, will circle back to the original question: Randolph was once brilliant to watch, when he was a soft-palmed garbage man coming off the bench, or getting spot starts, in Portland. It felt like he could go for 20 and 20 every time he got substantial minutes, all the while tending to the offensive glass and dropping in put-backs more beautifully than you ever thought possible.
Also, I want to disagree with your basic premise: there have been plenty of physical bruising big men who struck fear into opponents and, other than the times they walloped someone, were pretty darn boring. Randolph used to be the one and only power forward who made life in the trenches into a freaking Henry James novel. Then he poisoned himself, and became "interesting" only in the way some emergency room cases are. Even when you see some of the old Z-Bo today, it's not the same, and it certainly doesn't make the Grizzlies edgier, or unpredictable in a way anyone cares about. His battle is with himself; it doesn't even spill over into the outside world to cast darkness over Memphis.
TZ: Rashard Lewis once signed an absurd contract. He's managed to mostly live it down, thanks to Orlando's success. No one sees the Grizzlies as a potential title contender any time soon. So what does Gay have to do to beat the conventional wisdom and easy jokes?
BS: I don't know if Lewis has lived it down, and he certainly hasn't lived up to the "overpaying, but perfect fit" justification some of us offered at the time. It's still commented on quite a bit. But you're right that people just kind of accept it. There's no indignation or regret about Lewis' contract.
I think Gay has a good chance of backing it up even if the Grizz make the playoffs only a couple of times in his career. Lewis is, and always has been, a limited player. He was never going to dominate. Gay, on the other hand, is a phenomenally talented, versatile player who gets better every year. Gay may never be a true franchise player, in the sense that the team would live and die by his ability to take over games. That doesn't mean, though, that he won't make several All-Star teams before he's through, and serve as the leader and focal point of this Memphis team. Just because some players are overpaid with their max deals, there's no reason to set the bar too absurdly high.
And now, the Raptors.
BS: Is there any way that this franchise is better off without Chris Bosh? Don't just tell me that he wanted out, and pouters spoil the glory of basketball.
TZ: No, there is no way in Hades this franchise is better off with Chris Bosh. His numbers tell of one of the best power forwards of the era; in fact, if you consider this era post-Dirk, post-KG and post-Duncan (even though those guys are still around and winning), Bosh is the best. He beats LaMarcus Aldridge and David Lee, and is comparable to Amar'e Stoudemire. He's really, really good, and the Raptors don't have anyone like him, and you don't win consistently without either an offensive star or a rock-solid defense. Toronto now has neither. The franchise is toast with Bosh.
That said, at least the powers that be will be able to see that the franchise is toast. Bosh, by virtue of being so good, so reliable (I'll let the haters' chuckles die down) has masked how bad the talent base has been. If you miss the playoffs with a player of Bosh's caliber, your team blows. Plain and simple. Bryan Colangelo must know this, and soon enough, his bosses will, too. There's some intriguing youth on the roster, but guys like DeMar DeRozan are still a few years away from dependability. Bosh was there, and his absence leaves a gaping hole.
BS: Can Leandro Barbosa or Julian Wright find new life with the Raptors? Have we given up on Amir Johnson?
TZ: Barbosa can find new life anywhere; other than perhaps Joe Johnson, Leandrinho is the D'Antoni Suns rotation player least dependent on that particular style, if only because he's a bench player through and through. Every team has or wants to have a firebug off the bench, even the slowest clubs. Heck, that's been Rudy Fernandez's role in Portland, a role that leaves him unsatisfied. Toronto plays up-tempo enough for Barbosa to fit in as a starter (if needed), as well, so it seems like a good fit.
Wright, on the other hand, seems to need either huge minutes during which to blossom, or perfect instruction. No offense to Jay Triano, but JuJu ought to be begging for the former. If there's a silver lining to Toronto's precipitous fall from relevance, it's that it could turn into quite the test kitchen. That's where Amir comes in.
I'm not sure why anyone would ever have given up on Amir. He's still doing what he's always done: rebound like a center, block shots like a Birdman, dunk the living hell out of a few loose balls a game, hustle hustle hustle. Perhaps we'd hoped for a more rounded skillset by this point, and at some point potential must become production. But we continue to act as if it's Amir's fault he gets limited minutes, as if there's some gaping hole in his game that restricts a coach's ability to insert him into the game. It's the same philosophy that never wanted to give Paul Millsap more minutes, or that wanted Andray Blatche to be a back-up forever.
BS: Was Ed Davis the right pick?
TZ: Davis was pretty clearly the best prospect on the board, both in terms of realistic expectations of production and star potential. In fact, Ed likely should have been chosen a few picks earlier; he beats out a number of lottery choices in those categories. The Raptors chose well.
The question becomes one of whether the team can develop him properly to be a fit with Andrea Bargnani. That means Davis needs to kill the offensive glass, scoring in the post with regularity and -- perhaps most importantly -- learn to pass out of double-teams. That seems to be a skill that takes time to learn. (Bosh, for example, still struggles with it, and veterans Al Jefferson and Zach Randolph might be the worst in the league.) Toronto, at some point, has to come up with some semblance of defense, and I'm not sure how Davis will do there.
Any team featuring Bargnani, though, needs an ace defender next to him. It's a huge burden for Davis.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.