Monday, December 21, 2009

The Gortat Mystery


April 30th, 2009. The day that changed the way Marcin Gortat was viewed. Dwight Howard was suspended for one game for a wild elbow to the head of Sam Dalembert during the Orlando/Philly playoff series. The Magic started Gortat at center in game six, and he responded with 11 points and 15 rebounds. The rest is history.

Gortat becomes the next Wilt Chamberlain, in the estimation of some. The Dallas Mavericks make him target number one in their offseason talent hunt. The Mavs 30 year search for a center was about to end! Gortat would come in to Big D and push Little D (or Erica, or Big Tamp, or whatever you like to call Erick Dampier) to the bench where he belongs.

But, in the eleventh hour, the Magic matched the Mavs offer. 5 years, $34 million. Gortat was bummed, and so was Dallas. I wasn't. I never got the Gortat fuss. Allow me to explain.

THE TROUBLE WITH NUMBERS

Gortat has some redeeming qualities. He's pretty athletic for a 7 footer. He's not bad on defense. He can rebound. He also has some liabilities--for example: anything on the offensive end. He is a garbage man, at best. He is a good backup, center. That's it.

However, last summer all I kept hearing were Gortat supporters offering up his points-per-48 minutes and rebounds-per-48 minutes numbers. Drove me crazy. "He averages 17 rebounds per 48 minutes! Don't you see, he's Bill Russell all over again! Except that he's white and Polish!" Projecting numbers for backups is as close to an inexact science as we have in sports. Do you realize how many variables go into projecting a backup as a starter? What if he doesn't have the stamina to play 40 minutes a night? It's easy to have your motor running hot for 15 minutes a contest--you don't have to pace yourself and you can go balls-to-the-wall while you're in the game.

Plus, what Gortat did in his 15 minutes a night off the Orlando bench may not be what you would get out of him as a starter with another team. Don't you think that when Dwight Howard leaves the game and Gortat comes in that there is a natural tendency for the opponent to say "Whew, glad Howard's gone for a while" and slack off just a bit? I've always thought that Gortat has taken advantage of that. Yes, he's put up decent numbers when he starts--all FOUR of his career starts. Too small of a sampling to think that he could be a productive, 35 minute, 82 game starter, I think.

In fact, if the Mavs had landed Gortat, I don't think he would have ever put up a season close to Dampier's best (12 ppg, 12 rpg). We'll never find out, thankfully. The Magic rescued the Mavs by matching the offer. Which brings us to this season...

GORTAT 2009: MISSING IN ACTION

There was talk this summer after Gortat was retained by the Magic that some secret deal had been cut with another team, and that Gortat would be dealt on December 15th. That date came and went, and Gortat is still in Orlando. Might he be dealt this year? Sure, although GM Otis Smith says he's not trading Gortat this season (we know how that goes). But while still with the Magic, Gortat is watching his playing time dwindle, barely getting on the floor in the last two weeks. This season he's averaging a whopping 3 points and 3 rebounds per game. Nice. Stan Van Gundy says that Gortat has no spark. Some say it's because he wants out of Orlando. Others say it's because this summer's run with the Polish National Team took a lot out of him. I say it's because he's one of the most overrated big men I've seen in a long time. I don't dislike Marcin, I just disliked knee-jerk observers claiming that Gortat was the Mavs missing link.

If Gortat were the great player in waiting that many believe him to be, then why wouldn't Orlando play him more? Because they don't want to hurt him in case they trade him? Really? If Gortat were so great, as I was told last summer, then why wouldn't Van Gundy stick he and Howard out there together, just for a while? Duncan/Robinson, Gasol/Bynum. If you have two good/great big men, why not play them together more? Is the answer that Gortat is not that good? Is the answer that Gortat is nothing more than a decent backup center, whose legend grew out of control last summer because of one good playoff game?

Gortat may enjoy a long and lucrative NBA career. It's my bet that he does so as a backup. If another team takes a chance on him as a starter, I would wager that about 50 games into that experiment the GM who made the move to get Gortat will say to himself "WTF?" I'm just glad it won't be Donnie Nelson dropping that F-bomb on himself.

(If Gortat goes on to greatness, then ignore the above rant.)

That's it. And speaking of F-bombs: in the immortal words of Barry Switzer, "Merry F'ing Christmas!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dear Jerry, Please Coach


It would be the greatest sports story in the history of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex. And it's the sports headline that I hope we see in about three weeks time: "Jerry Jones Fires Wade Phillips; Names Himself New Head Coach".

Can you imagine the mileage we would get out of this story? Newspaper columnists would write non-stop on the subject. Talk radio would explode. Dale Hansen would implode. Ozarka and Evian stock would soar as football fans everywhere would spend countless hours discussing the move around the water cooler at work. It would get more play than the Tiger story. Who says you need sex to sell? Jerry's insanity would trump Tiger's wood.

I pray each night to Baby Jesus that this scenario comes true. In my line of work, this kind of a story would be pure gold--better even than Mark Cuban appearing on Dancing With the Stars or Tom Hicks getting a sex-change*.

*Cuban appearing on DWTS did occur, however the Hicks sex-change is only a hypothetical as of now.

WHY IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

Jerry is not fooling anyone. He IS the Cowboys head coach, just not in title. He is also the owner, president, general manager, chief mouthpiece, chief motivator, and official sideline patrolman. He has given some titles away in order to make the Cowboys look like a balanced organization. However, most of those titles were given to people whose last name also happens to be "Jones" and who directly sprang from Jerry's testes, so there is no danger of anyone questioning his authority.

Jerry's current head coach in title is nothing more than a defensive coordinator who gets to play dress up on Sundays. Wade Phillips even gives us a hint as to what goes on behind the scenes at Valley Ranch. On more than one occasion during his press conferences, Phillips has quipped "I can't answer that question until I find out what Jerry has to say," or "whatever Jerry says, that's what I think." And he's not kidding. Not one bit. Phillips doesn't have the power to poop without Jerry giving him the OK. Not that Wade would know what to do with any power, but that's for another blog post.

In other (normal) organizations, the head coach is the one who decides which players belong on the 53 man roster. He decides which players will start. He decides which players will be punished. He decides everything that has to do with the work week practice schedule, the travel schedule, the game day routine and lineup, and so on. That's the way it was when Landry and Johnson coached the Cowboys. The players knew who to answer to: the coach. Today's Cowboys? The players have no coach to answer to. Jerry decides lineups. Jerry decides fines. Jerry decides roster moves. All of the things that Landry and Johnson did in the past, Jerry does today.

JIMMY'S SHADOW


From the moment he fired Jimmy, Jerry has been obsessed with getting credit for being a "football man". That credit was not given when Jerry and Barry Switzer hoisted a Super Bowl trophy in Tempe, as everyone simply dismissed the accomplishment with the "that's still Jimmy's team" thought. So Jerry's quest to escape the Jimmy shadow continued. Yet, since the time that "Jimmy's" team gradually dissipated, Jerry hasn't a single playoff win to show for it.

When Jerry was hired, he promised to be involved in everything including the "socks and jocks" (note: many believe that he would be best suited sticking to that promise and working as the team's laundry man). Indeed, Jerry has been in on everything and every decision in his 20 years with the Cowboys. So why not go all the way with this philosophy?

COACH JERRY

There is no doubt in my mind that Jerry has thought about coaching. He thinks he can do it all. He played at high level in college. He's been around the NFL for 20 years. He always says he's learned a lot from coaches like Parcells and Johnson. He's obviously comfortable on the sidelines, where he stands around and occasionally gets in the ears of the players--like a coach would. He gives the team halftime pep talks in the locker room--like a coach would. He wears coaches attire at practice--like a coach would. He makes all of the personnel decisions--like a coach would. HE THINKS HE'S A COACH! It's painfully obvious. Jerry is not fooling anyone.

He knows his idol Al Davis was a coach. He knows the two things he hasn't done in the NFL are play and coach. He's too old to play, but not too old to coach. He wrestles with the good and the bad that his becoming head coach would bring. He would love the limelight. He would hate the laughter. He would love running a practice. He would hate the laughter. He would love leading the team out of the tunnel and onto the field. He would hate the laughter.

Deep down, he thinks he could do it. He thinks he would be successful. That's how successful people generally think. They believe that they will always be able to make it work. If the bottom falls out on this season--and it's looking like it will--wouldn't this be the perfect time for Coach Jerry? Wade is proving that he's a good defensive coordinator, but someone who is uncomfortable in the role of a leader. Jason Garrett is proving he's not ready to be a head coach. Mike Shanahan, Bill Cowher and Mike Holmgren all want too much control.

Jerry is the only perfect coach for Jerry. Coach Jerry won't mind if Owner Jerry joins him on the sideline or usurps his power. Coach Jerry will agree with every move that GM Jerry makes. Coach Jerry won't mind President Jerry stealing the spotlight.

It's all too serendipitous, given the fact that next season's Super Bowl will be played at Jerry's new stadium. In Jerry's dreams he leads the Cowboys to a championship at his own stadium. And after the game, the crowning moment occurs: Jerry gets to hold up the Lombardi Trophy--by himself. No Jimmy, no Barry, no Jimmy shadow. Just Jerry Jones, Owner, President, General Manager, and Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys

EPILOGUE

I realize that this Jerry-coach thing will never happen. I also realize that, either way, the Cowboys are doomed. As a fan once told me: "The Cowboys won't win another title until Stephen Jones' weekly duties include placing flowers at a certain tombstone in a certain Highland Park cemetery."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Who Is Kevin Durant?


I was watching the Thunder play the Celtics last Friday night. I realize this makes me a complete geek, but that's beside the point. It was interesting to watch Kevin Durant against a good defensive team like Boston. He had 36 points, and no assists. I like watching him play. He's exciting, seems like he has a good head on his shoulders, and is well liked around the league. Yet there are some diverse opinions out there on Durant: is he the next Kobe, or is he destined to become just a great scorer who never does much else? Is he a Jordan in the making, or is he the second coming of World B. Free?

After about two years, it looks like he was a much better pick than Greg Oden. At the time, I said I would take Oden, mainly because I believe you build champions from the inside out. I never thought Oden would be a big scorer, but I did think he could be a Bill Russell/Bill Walton-type. I thought he could give you 17 points each night, with a lot of boards and a lot of defense. Unfortunately for Blazers fans, Oden is looking too much like Sam Bowie--he appears extremely fragile. Meanwhile, Durant is already a force. But who is he?

I know who he is. I've shared this thought many times on the radio show, but never had time to go in-depth about it. Kevin Durant IS George Gervin. But is that a good thing?

ICE AND ME


First of all, full disclosure (not the book by the same name about the history of SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket--published by Benbela Books and available at book stores everywhere for $24.95). Disclosure about my basketball background: I grew up the biggest George Gervin fan in America. I worshiped the Iceman. He was unique. He was a trendsetter. He was unstoppable. He was skinny. He was my first real sports idol. I couldn't wait for the paper each morning to check out his box score. Of course, I had listened to the game the night before, so I knew what he had done--but I still loved seeing it in print. Gervin, 14-24, 10-11, 38 pts. Night in, night out.

Gervin started his career (at age 19, just like Durant) in Virginia and then San Antonio in the ABA as a small forward. When the Spurs were absorbed by the NBA, Gervin became a shooting guard. The league had never seen anything like him. A 6'7 guard. He was the first true big guard. Before him, shooting guards were 6'4. Gervin was a big guard before Magic. And the bank was always open for Ice--only Sam Jones ever used the glass more effectively than Gervin.

I feel like I am qualified to compare modern day players to Gervin. There never has been anyone like him. Until now. Durant and Gervin are so similar it's scary. Above all else, Durant is a pure scorer, like Gervin was. Both are so thin, you wonder why a pick has never broken them in half. Gervin was 6'7, 180 pounds. Durant is 6'9 and listed at 230 (I don't think so! If he's a pound over 215 I would be shocked). Durant has the narrowest shoulders in the history of the NBA. Only former Pacers/Knicks great Louis Orr was skinnier than Gervin and Durant (Orr was 6'8, 175).

Their early career numbers are almost identical. Through their first few seasons, each averaged around 23 ppg. Gervin pulled down 7 rebounds per game, Durant 6 rpg. Each posted negligible numbers in assists (about 2 per game), steals (1 spg) and blocks (1 bpg). Both shot between 46% and 48% from the field, and both shot about 85% from the line. Durant can smoothly score from anywhere, like Gervin. Durant is explosive, but doesn't possess Lebron-like explosiveness. Durant is not a superior athlete. Neither was Gervin. Ice dunked a lot in the early days, like Durant, but was never considered a great athlete. Gervin did possess a dazzling array of post moves, which he used to abuse smaller defenders. Durant doesn't have these post moves, or the finger-roll, or the cool nickname. Other than that, Durant is Gervin.

THE PROBLEM WITH BEING GERVIN

The Iceman was never much interested in defense. Or passing. Or rebounding (as his career went on). Durant isn't much interested in defense. Or passing. Or rebounding (when you are 6-9 and playing 40 minutes, 6 rebounds should accidentally fall your way). And this is the problem. The Spurs loved having Gervin--on one end of the court. He was a nightmare match up for the other team. But, he was a nightmare liability for the Spurs on defense. All Ice wanted to do was score. All Durant wants to do is score.

Gervin's great scoring never got the Spurs past the Conference Finals. And it wasn't because he had a bad cast around him. He always had at least one other 20 ppg scorer with him (Kenon, Silas, Mitchell). He even had a good big man for a few years in a later-day Artis Gilmore. But when your leader, your star, doesn't play defense, you have a problem (Dirk?). Gervin's four scoring titles were great, but zero NBA titles leaves a void on your resume.

Is Kevin Durant destined to have a George Gervin-like career? If so, that's not bad. He'll win his share of scoring titles. He'll be an perennial All-Star. He'll probably end up in the Hall of Fame. But, to be considered a true great, he'll have to start paying attention to all aspects of his game. To be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan or Kobe, he'll have to become a better defender. He should be a better rebounder than both. And for now, he's nowhere near the assist man than Jordan was and that Kobe became.

SO WHAT WILL HE BE?


Given his build, I'm not sure Durant will ever be a great defender. He's not a very strong man. Remember the story out of the draft camp in 2007, when it was reported that he couldn't bench press 185 lbs? But what's more concerning that his physical limitations is his mind set. Does he have the Gervin-McGrady-Dantley scoring-only mind set? If so, that can be a hard habit to break.

Wayne Winston, the former Mavericks stat guru and advisor, is not high on Durant. Winston was interviewed last month on TrueHoop, and was asked about building a championship team. He was offered the hypothetical of taking Kevin Durant, for free, to add to his team. He said no. He said "I would not sign the guy. It's not inevitable that he will make mid-career strides. He would have to improve a lot to help a team." And that's the ultimate question about Durant: will he be a superstar who makes everyone around him better, or will he be a superstar who makes everyone around him just sit back and watch him operate one-on-one?

If I had to bet, I would bet that Durant finishes his career as Gervin or McGrady, not Jordan or Kobe. To my eye, there is just something missing. I saw the same thing when he was at Texas in big games. Every time I watch him, I just don't see how he makes those around him better. How can you play 40 minutes against a team like Boston with the ball in your hands every possession and not record a single assist? It's the Gervin curse. It's not a bad curse to have--it will make you a ton of money and get you to Springfield. But it won't put you in the pantheon of the greats who are called "champions".

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to plan my social calendar for next Friday night. Looks like the Pacers host the Nets--I think I can catch that one!

THE END

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Basketball IQ

For my first entry, I've chosen a basketball topic that I enjoy enough to blog about: the basketball IQ of a player.

You hear that term a lot. I think it's perhaps the single most important quality in today's NBA player. There is a fine line athletically between Kobe Bryant and Corey Maggette -- in fact, almost no difference. What makes Kobe so much better than Corey? Basketball IQ. Not to diminish ability: no doubt that there is a wide gulf between LeBron James and J.J. Barea. But, as someone wise once told me as I lined up for a bicyle race against guys who had bigger lungs and stronger legs than I did, "It's not always the strongest guy, but the smartest, who often wins the race". Let's start with that thought.

THE GOLD STANDARD

In my lifetime, the smartest players to have laced them up are Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Also possessing the NBA's equivalant of a genius IQ would be Michael Jordan, John Stockton and Tim Duncan. There are others, but let's use these five as an example of The Gold Standard. Not that these guys never committed a turnover or made a mistake, they just made fewer than the rest. These five also were able to elevate their play and thought process during the most high-pressure moments. Each of these Gold Standard players exhibited the same abilities and instincts. They all had/have that innate sense for when to pass and when to shoot. They could all make the great pass. They could all make the big shot. Not freaking out at crunch time is huge when determining a hoops IQ.

The smartest players are always able to think two or three moves ahead of the opponent, and all of these players had/have that. That's how you win a chess match, and that's how you win a basketball game. It's the reason Larry Bird was a good defender and rebounder: he was always two or three steps ahead (mentally and thus physically) of everyone else on the court. Magic and Stockton could see passing lanes that most point guards couldn't even dream about.

Jordan aside, none of these players were ever considered overly physically gifted. Duncan is not the quickest/strongest big man. Stockton was small. Magic was slow. Bird was slow and pasty. But their basketball IQ's were through the roof. Jordan knew when to give it up at crunch time to John Paxson. Magic knew when to toss the baby hook. Only Bird could have stolen that ball against Detroit. Duncan plays defense through fundamentals and thought process to the point of perfection. Opponents hated playing Stockton because they couldn't stand the way he guarded them, which on the surface never made sense because he was tiny and (relatively) slow.

ALL OF THE ELEMENTS

Thinking a few steps ahead of your opponent is maybe the most important, but not only factor that makes up a players basketball IQ. There are many other factors, such as the ability to deal with teammates, coaches, and refs. Knowing how to practice. Knowing how to live your life away from the court so that it doesn't interfere with your play (diet, rest, focus). And of course, simply knowing the game inside and out...from the fundamentals, to being able to read and react to a defensive set, to knowing how much time is left in a possession or a quarter. A lot of this sounds basic, but you would be amazed at just how few players can think about all of these things simultaneously each trip down the court.

THE MAVERICKS AND BASKETBALL IQ

All of this brings us to our home team and their IQ. For years, I've preached about the collectively low basketball IQ of the Mavericks, and how that needs to be addressed. Finally, this off season, Mark Cuban agreed with me. He told us on our radio show just before the season started that one of the biggest differences between this year's Mavs and past teams would be a higher basketball IQ. Good! So, has that really been the case?

The addition of Jason Kidd two seasons ago helped this team -- a ton. I rank Kidd as one of the smartest players in today's game. He would be just below genius level, in my book. I've seen a couple of brain-fart moments at the end of big games, and that keeps me from putting him at the Magic/Bird level. But he instantly raised the Mavs basketball IQ when he joined the team. He makes Magic-like passes. He is still a good defender at age 37 because he knows where to be, knows how to play the passing lanes, and knows what his opponent is thinking. I love watching Kidd play. He gets it. On the Lewis Terman IQ scale, Kidd would fall into the "very superior" category.

Of the other regulars on the roster, I would put Dirk one level down, but still at "superior." He has grown into a very smart player. He still struggles defensively night in and night out, and there is no reason for that. That's what takes his ranking down. He's every bit as physically gifted as Larry Bird, so there is no reason he couldn't defend like Bird. Comes down to basketball IQ. Plus, I'm not always comfortable with his decision-making down the stretch, although it's much better now than it was a few years ago. But, in general, he's a smart-to-very smart player.

The next level on the Terman scale is "average." This is where we find most of the Mavs. Terry, Barea, Dampier, Gooden -- all average. I also put Shawn Marion at this level. He's a pretty smart defender, and also has a decent offensive sense. But I still wonder about the intangibles. Someone close to the Suns recently told me that many on that team say Marion routinely vanished at crunch time, especially in the playoffs. That's low basketball IQ stuff. So his grade is balanced by the good and the bad.

So are the Mavs smarter this year? Maybe, but it's not necessarily by addition. I think it's by subtraction. No Josh Howard. He's basically not played this year, and that's a good thing for Dallas. Howard has, in my opinion, one of the lowest basketball IQ's I've ever seen. The stupid passes, stupid shots, stupid birthday parties, stupid things that come out of his mouth, etc. Is there a worse player on the team to be inbounding the basketball at crunch time? No player has done more to damage the Mavericks on and off the court since the Miami series than Josh Howard. On the Terman scale, he ranks in the "feeble-minded" category. Unfortunateley, he will be a big part of this team, if healthy, going forward.

I would rather have Bob Ortegal playing 2-guard for the Mavs in the postseason than Josh Howard. At least Bob knows how the game is supposed to be played.

THE END?

That does it for my first-ever blog. I'm certainly not the strongest or smartest blogger in the race, but I've got a lot of basketball thoughts bouncing around in my little brain, and I'll try to post them here from time to time. Or maybe not.

Since I've never blogged before, I don't really know how to end this. So I'll go with the old standby:

The End.