Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The South Beach Case Study: Year One Complete

The first year of the South Beach Case Study concluded with a compelling NBA Finals that saw the Dallas Mavericks defeat the Miami Heat in six games.  Although Miami- specifically LeBron James- mightily disappointed in the Finals, don't be quick to call the experiment a failure.   

  1. This team was designed by Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, James, and according to the media, Satan himself, to be a contender for many years.  The case study is in its infancy. 
  2. If James plays half as well in the Finals as he had all season, the first year of this experiment would have concluded with a championship.     
Calling the 2011 season a rough start to the experiment in terms of variables understates how flawed Miami's team was constructed around the Big Three.  Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, the team's fourth and fifth best players, were injured throughout the year and missed the habit-forming process that is the NBA regular season.  The Three Kings were flanked by limited one-way players, rusting veterans, and zero-way piles of rust (I'm looking at you, Mike Bibby).  Yet, even with their heavy lifters needing time to gel and redundancy getting in the way of a good time, Miami won 58 games and vanquished every Eastern Conference foe in the playoffs.
From left:  Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. 

What have we learned?  I'll posit questions from the beginning of the year and briefly give conclusions.

Can two ball-dominant slashers, James and Wade, work together?  Yes, but not perfectly.  An inside/outside combination always works better because it's more balanced.  James and Wade tweaked their off-ball games this year to feature more cutting, spot-up shooting and reading of offensive rebounding lanes.  However, old habits crept through at times, displaying themselves in the form of the two augmenting the playbook to feature "isolation and hold the ball for 18 seconds before acting" sets.  Not very effective basketball.

 Will the egos of the three amigos collide or will they remember the sacrifices they promised to make in order to play with each other?  To put it simply, they remembered.  James and Wade appeared to share the ball in crunch time, too.   

What about substitution patterns and minutes distributions? Will their careers be extended because they don't have to lift their teams alone anymore?  Well, they carried a heavy burden this year.  Spoelstra couldn't afford to really rest his prime players, and without a true post defender, the three stars expended a lot of energy making the defense elite (fifth in defensive rating).  

What happens to a superstar's stats when he isn't playing in a single superstar-centric offense anymore?  The offensive stats went down a bit for Wade and James and a lot for Bosh.  This is related to the first question.  When the ball-handlers go to iso-ball, they waste the help they signed up to play with.

The team would be best served obtaining a point guard able and willing to take command of the offense from James and Wade.  If Miami runs some actual plays that turn James and Wade into finishers, Miami's offense could get to an all-time level.   

The SBCS gets the summer off.  Year two will begin...well, with the lockout looming, that's as unpredictable as South Beach itself.       

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Morphing Maverick?

Much has been made of Dirk Nowitzki's apparent transformation that led to his amazing play in leading the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA championship.  He seemingly learned how to win this year, to harness his talents and become a clutch performer in the playoffs.  A vocal leader with a "take the game by the balls" approach had emerged from past individual failures more hardened than ever, and it all came together in 2011.  Championship.  This must have been the final evolutionary stage of the Morphing Maverick, the one who could finally lead his team to a title, correct?

 Maybe, maybe not.  

Image Via Wikipedia
 Long before Dirk Nowitzki won NBA Finals MVP and chugged some Ace of Spades, he was a lanky 7-footer from Germany with a too-quick first step for a 7-footer who was going to revolutionize what a 7-footer acted as on an NBA team.   

When he first reached All-Star status, he was a power forward with elite 3-point shooting who could create a look over any defender- and I must say, a dream to play with in NBA Live 2004.  However, he was stuck on poorly constructed teams that focused too much on offense and too little on defense.  (Seriously, they stacked Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison around their jump-shooting superstar big man in the frontcourt!)

That all changed when Steve Nash left, Avery Johnson brought defense and Dirk started concentrating his game inside the arc.  Suddenly, the Mavericks were legitimate contenders, able to play multiple styles and win traditional playoff games by valuing every possession.  Yet, playoff failure repeated in 2006 and 2007.  Dallas didn't have a secondary scorer to help Nowitzki  against Miami, and their defense had no answer for Dwyane Wade while inexplicably triple-teaming a Shaquille O'Neal who hadn't yet proved he could dismantle their interior defense.  Against Golden State, Nowitzki's former coach Don Nelson sent so many defenders to fluster him that it looked like he was being defended by- warning, spoiler alert!- the Super 8 monster.  Nowitzki the 7-footer hadn't yet learned how to take advantage of his height when defended by small forwards in the midpost, Dirk V.2007's fatal flaw.  

What is the point of being that tall- of having that immense advantage- when it can be used against you?

However, Dirk did work, and since then, that defensive blueprint hasn't phased him one bit come playoff time.  A swarming defense became a failing strategy against Nowitzki.  He torched New Orleans for 26.8 ppg on almost 59 percent true shooting in 2008.  He averaged 4 assists and 2 turnover per game.  He added 12 rebounds per contest.

In 2009 against the Spurs and the Nuggets, he dropped 26.8 ppg on 63.5 percent true shooting.  In 2010, he put up 26.7 ppg on over 64 percent true shooting against the Spurs.  This past year, he averaged 27.7 ppg on 60.9 percent true shooting, with lesser rebounding and passing numbers than in past playoff years.

Where exactly did he improve this year?  Well, he marginally improved his sense of timing and court awareness (though he never lacked in court awareness anyway).  Other than that, he's the same player he's been for the past four years: a championship-caliber offensive Constant.   

Dirk Nowitzki, like most great players, morphed into a champion long before he won a championship.      

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Goodbye to Shaq

I'm gifting Shaquille O'Neal a post-NBA career that could keep him afloat financially for life.

A customizable mini-hoop, built to be dragged down without suffering permanent damage.  It includes a tennis ball so you can shoot free throws like Diesel- be Shaq in your own home.

Because that's what NBA basketball was for O'Neal- it was playing on a mini-hoop.  Superman wasn't actually out of this world, but merely outside the dimensions of a basketball court;  94 feet by 50 feet, 10 feet from floor to rim, and 16 feet in the painted area needed porn star-style augmentation to make Shaq look normal.  Or maybe they could have used Shaq's DNA to create giant clones of players, a la the storyline of Jurassic Park.  Or hell, just create a T-Rex and see if he could defend O'Neal.  (I heard Mark Cuban was funding his own T-Rex recreation scheme that was as hush-hush as Area 51, but stopped it after David Stern legalized the zone defense.)
So long, Shaq. 

He was and will forever be my favorite player.  I can shoot a jumper like Kobe Bryant or master a post move like Tim Duncan, but I can never be too big for a basketball court unless it's a mini-court.  That's what drew me to O'Neal as a kid, and not much has changed since.  A skyscraper or a large, beautiful scene in nature are things I could never accurately be like.  Shaq's only human, but he's halfway to that level at least.

The best Shaq performance I ever witnessed was during the last two games of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.  Dealing with numerous little injuries and his team down 3-2 to Sacramento, Shaq delivered menacing dunks, an alpha attitude and- yeah, check this out- excellent free throw shooting.  He told the team to give it to him and let him set the tone for game six, and he did just that.  Overall, he averaged 38 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks per game while hitting 75 percent of his free throws in the two victories.    

That takes brains and heart.  It's what another out-of-normal NBA court-dimensions star, LeBron James, needs to come up with in the 2011 NBA Finals if he wants his name up there with Shaq's on all-time lists.

Brains and heart.  If you've got enough of them, perhaps you don't need a mini-hoop to play basketball like Shaquille O'Neal.          

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Viva Las Vegas, Hola NBA Finals

Vegas baby...
There I was in Las Vegas.  My first time.  I was unsure of what to do, of what the rules were or what proper etiquette was.  And I didn't want anybody to know how inexperienced I was, especially since Sin City specializes in this type of exciting endeavor.

Finally working up the courage to give it up, I pulled my wallet out and saw I only had $10.  Maybe it's better this way.

I approached with the money in hand and asked if $10 was enough.  Thankfully, she told me that $10 was the minimum and gave me my choices.  I selected what I wanted, what I thought was going to happen based on my knowledge of the subject.

I don't know how long it lasted- 20, maybe 25 minutes.  I was on top of the world, my hard work being paid off at this very moment in this crazy city at this ballerific hotel.  I was in the special room with everybody else, watching men and women being served drinks and smokes and food while they did what I was doing.  They seemed much more at ease, much more at home with this lifestyle.  I would have been more uncomfortable if I wasn't feeling the euphoria of conquest.

And then, Vegas turned into the place you hear about from your mature family members and corny vacation guides and old creepy people still shell-shocked by how much money they lost at Atlantic City 16 years ago.  The house- the House- started taking over, and I felt powerless to stop it.  What would I tell people about this trip?  It wasn't about the $10 I'd be losing.  It'd be the fact that my game two halftime prediction that the Miami Heat would defeat the Dallas Mavericks by four or more points was about to be eviscerated by one of the most epic comebacks in NBA Finals history.  My first ever sports bet in the most appropriate locale to do it in, the infamously inappropriate Las Vegas, Nevada.  I saw a 15-point lead and a $10 wager sail away faster than the growth of a new social media site.

I don't regret it though.  The contact buzz I obtained around those sports betting junkies (and I don't mean from the Macanudos) was worth it, and I made a good play- Dallas just hit on 16 and grabbed a five.    

Just for you Knicks fans:  I saw Patrick Ewing in Las Vegas, right on the Bellagio floor.  He was personable enough, though he wasn't taking pictures at the time.  Dude's the tallest person I've ever seen in person close up.

Some points on the Finals:

Dwyane Wade has been a two-way menace in the Finals. 
  • Dwyane Wade is playing magnificent ball right now.  I wasn't aware of how much some pre-series rest could do for one's legs, because Wade certainly doesn't look like the same player he was against Chicago.
  •  And neither does LeBron James for that matter.  I admire the fact that he's deferring to his great teammate, a teammate with a better matchup.  He's also facilitating and playing good defense.  But he hasn't been aggressive at any point during the last three games.  I think now that it's a best-of-three series, he'll look to handle more of the load.
  • Maybe I'm wrong about LeBron though.  Maybe we're wrong to be criticizing him for his play.  It's quite possible that the difference between James "deferring and playing smart team ball" and "being scared and toothless in the face of the massive pressure of the Finals stage" is winning and losing.
  • Dirk Nowitzki has been superman in both wins and losses.  He's a full-fledged offensive Constant now.  Well done Dirk, and I hope you are 100 percent for tomorrow's game.
  • Jason Kidd is doing whatever it takes to win.  His guidance has been instrumental to me, especially when I see him passing the ball to JJ Barea or Jason Terry and essentially initiating their pick-n-roll with Dirk while Kidd goes and spreads the floor with his jumper.

For those wondering if I designed the first half of this post intentionally to make it seem like something, err, different, the answer is yes.  Next post, I’ll talk about a certain retiree.