The last time George Karl had a killer defense…

The talk of the NBA, aside from incessant jabbering about the MVP, is how incredible the Nuggets have been since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups for a bunch of young players who play defense. The Nugget’s coach, George Karl, is typically known as a strong offensive coach– a guy who knows how to put his players in position to be successful. But this recent run by the Nuggets has been fueled by the defense, as the Nuggets have posted one of leagues the top defensive efficiency ratings since the trade—a big leap from where they were.

This got me thinking about the last time George Karl had a really excellent defensive club: in Seattle in the mid 1990s. The Sonics, like the current Nuggets, boasted a roster jam-packed with versatile athletes who could cover multiple positions (could Danillo Gallinari be the next Detlef Schrempf?!). Of course, the Nuggets don’t have Gary Payton, who from 1992-6 may have played the greatest defensive stretch of seasons by a point guard ever.

The Nuggets also don’t have Bob Kloppenburg, who was the defensive assistant with the Sonics from 1985-96, and developed the team’s defensive signature philosophy, SOS.

Kloppenburg’s system with the Sonics was just rude. Instead of reacting to the offense like a polite defense, the Sonics disrupted the opponent’s offensive actions by imposing a state of mayhem on the game. The roster of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Kendall Gill, Schrempf, Nate MacMillan and Sam Perkins was tailor made for the task.

Offenses have a plan, and the SuperSonics’ switching, trapping defense was designed to attack the offense in such a way that the plan would need to be torched in favor of whatever would help the ball handler survive the immense pressure. As a result of the SOS system, the

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HoopSpeak Network

Basketball Culture 101: She got game

[Editor's Note: Spencer Ryan Hall is the proprietor of the ESPN TrueHoop Network Utah Jazz blog Salt City Hoops. Here, Spencer writes about the first lady of basketball, dubbed "Lady Magic," Nancy Lieberman. Including an enlightening interview, this post makes clear how Lieberman has gone from a 13 year old Jewish girl playing at Rucker Park, to a successful head coach in the NBA's D-League.--Beckley]

A typical introduction for Nancy Lieberman might include a list of accomplishments and firsts. She’s the head coach of the Texas Legends in the D-League, the first woman to coach a men’s professional team. Her roster includes former Pacer Antonio Daniels, Mandarin-speaking NBA lottery pick Joe Alexander, and baller hobbyist Rashad McCants. She played two seasons against men in the USBL. She barnstormed with the Washington Generals playing against the Harlem Globetrotters. She played a game in the WNBA at the age of 50.

But all you really need to know about the aura of the woman nicknamed “Lady Magic” you can learn by watching the following clip: That’s the evidence of her baller status. Clearly, the first female basketball superstar is comfortable in the rare air she inhabits. She considers herself lucky, but not a fluke. She knows she belongs. How many can casually include themselves in a list of legendary New York icons? Who gets included in coffee table books with sepia photos of PS 104 and uses the familiar when referencing Kareem and Dr. J?

We spoke on the phone after I read her autobiography, Lady Magic, written in 1991. In that conversation, as in the previous clip, she shouted out Warren Buffett and Donald Trump and Jerry Jones (with a story that started “…so I’m talking to Warren and Bill Gates…”), providing further evidence of her influence beyond basketball.

A

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Durant And Westbrook: Playing Alone, Together

Amidst another successful season for the Oklahoma City Thunder one thing has become clear – the Thunder play, and win, a lot of close games.

Of the 72 games they’ve played thus far, 27 have been decided by five points or less, with OKC emerging on the winning end in 17 of these contests. Undoubtedly the presence of two elite scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has been a decisive factor in the majority of these games and their high usage rates in these scenarios only back up an already unmistakable truth: one of these two will be taking the shots. According to the “Clutch Stats” compiled by 82games.com (statistics accumulated in the 4th quarter or overtime,  with less than 5 minutes left and neither team ahead by more than 5 points), both Durant and Westbrook rank in the top ten in the NBA in field goal attempts per 48 minutes of crunch time.

The two young stars provide a nice diversity in scoring style, with Durant proving a reliable catch and shoot player (46% of his possessions are isolations or catches off screens according to Synergy Sports Technology), while Westbrook is an explosive virtuoso with the basketball in his hands (52% of touches come in iso’s and pick and roll sets). One would think that two stars whose games appear so complementary would be utilized together when a basket is needed the most. Surprisingly, the opposite has overwhelmingly been the case.

Of the 143 possessions defined as clutch that Durant and Westbrook have been involved in these games (meaning one of them took the shot or turned it over), only twice have they directly worked together to produce a shot. On paper, at least, it would seem logical that the two would created a deadly pick

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LeBron James for MVP

Because he’s still the best player and media narratives aren’t worth joining. For all the mockery incurred, expectations ducked, elderly players paid, Miami’s likely headed for the 2nd seed. Apparently that’s not good enough because Wade’s too good. Or it’s not good enough because the Heat treated fans to a free agent celebration–like a team that actually wants to entertain ticket holders. Or it’s not good enough because LeBron James made a PR mistake while granting himself a promotion–like a man giddy over getting the hell out of Gilbert’s Cleveland.

Or, because media members need to teach him a lesson in the form of pretending basketball history is a fairytale, written in crayon. Almost seamlessly, fresh-faced cherub Kevin Durant is chucked for halo-hat Derrick Rose. We crave a twinkly-eyed, ascendant American Idol whom we can hoist like baby Simba. Derrick’s team won more, so he’s the more acceptable metaphorical rebuke to James’s impurity. Forget KD, let us ascribe the same “winner” qualities to this other innocent who also hasn’t yet won a playoff series.

LeBron can’t be MVP because the award is something it isn’t. It’s not just the “Most Valuable Player,” but instead a witch’s brew, derived from causation fallacies, preseason expectations, market size, and media story crafting. I hear it tastes like Budweiser Chelada. I’d rather stomach something rational.

Would a Rose choice by any other name..

Some would say that we should have a separate award for the most statistically dominant player. I respond: Would you like to have a dumber MVP debate than the current one? Also, isn’t the single honor straight forward to the sentient? Any reinterpretation of “Most Valuable” confuses my English-loving brain. When I hear, “Look, BEST is different from MOST VALUABLE,” it sounds a lot like, “Look, I think

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Being colorblind is racist

Last week, Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Myles Brown and I addressed what we found to be an upsettingly narrow public discussion surrounding Jalen Rose’s words in the Fab Five documentary and Grant Hill’s response in the New York Times.

Evaluating the Hill vs. Rose scorecard was small potatoes in comparison to the portrait of poverty and pain that Rose offered through his honest recounting of how he felt as a 18 year old from inner-city Detroit. It was tricky to distill my ideas, but luckily, I came across some relevant opinions of someone much more insightful than me in the February issue of The Sun magazine.

In an interview conducted by Arnie Cooper with Ohio State professor and lawyer Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, there are oodles of interesting and disturbing thoughts about the US Justice system, the War on Drugs, incarceration trends, race and public policy. For instance, did you know that despite the fact that the majority of the country’s illegal drug users and dealers are white, 75% of incarcerated drug users are black or Latino? Once incarcerated, rather than rehabilitating to become productive members of society, the convicted lose the right to vote, and have a much more difficult time finding employment. Alexander sees this a symptom of a backward War on Drugs, which began—in her opinion, as a political tool—in 1982 (a couple years before crack hit predominantly black inner cities) and disproportionately and negatively affects black communities.

Interestingly, Alexander believes the civil-right movement has been hampered by the goal of “colorblindness”—the idea that “once we reach this colorblind nirvana, racial consciousness won’t be necessary” because the effects of racism will not be evident has “proved disastrous for African Americans.”

“The concept has been interpreted to

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Derrick Rose for MVP: Is it too late for a debate?

I don’t mean to be a stick in the mud, but I’ve been shocked by the uniformity of opinion when it comes to this year’s MVP race. Everyone seems to think that Derrick Rose is either most deserving, or has built so much momentum that resistance is futile. Rose’s MVP buzz reached it’s zenith a couple weeks ago, and by now most are fastened low and snug across the waist into the Derrick Rose bandwagon. The Chicago point guard is having a great season, but the problem for me is that some other guys are too.

Shouldn’t there be some robust debate as to whether Rose is more deserving than LeBron James, who is again posting the league’s best statistical season for the only team in the top five in defensive and offensive efficiency?

Or what about Dwight Howard, who is a more efficient and nearly as prolific a scorer as Rose, while pulling in 14 rebounds and somehow leading the Magic to a top five defensive team despite the absence of a single teammate who is an even average defender?

I’m not asking for everyone to abandon Rose-mania, but to at least offer some opposition, some debate, something that will squelch my sense that Rose’s less than airtight MVP campaign is nothing more than a PR buoyed Titanic.

Here’s an outline of the debate I’ve been having in my head. Let’s start with the leakiest beam on the Cruise Ship MVP Rose:

Pro: Rose has gone from a very poor shooter to one with the mechanics and confidence to consistently hit jumpshots from all over the court. Coupled with an ultra explosive first step, Rose now has the ability to create a viable shot opportunity at any time, and from almost anywhere. This kid worked hard, rounded out

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He’s not your child

March Madness sweeps in another addled state. Those blaring horns, familiar colors and boyish athletes combine to render you nostalgic, emotional. Suddenly, the TV is pulling at your paternal levers, producing the crazed yearning for an even higher age limit.

(Must little Kyrie Irving leave the nest today? Why so soon?)

If you feel this way, perhaps you welcome the prospect of setting the bar at 20 years old for these aspiring professionals. I understand, dear fans, basketball pundits, and friends of my father. Root for the 19 year old collegiate basketball player, wish him well in the future, but I’d remind: He’s not your child. Actually, is he just a child? He’s also a man who can pay taxes, vote, and legally kill strangers in far flung deserts.

Some clichés are clichés for a reason. This military one endures because it’s apt, cutting. There’s no rebuttal. Unless you’re actively, loudly, speaking out against the low military age limit, how can you make a concerned argument for a higher basketball limit? I’d love to hear a wrinkled pundit sagely intone, “Hey, 19 year old men should be allowed, even encouraged to risk exploded limbs, post traumatic stress disorder, a life of mental anguish, painful death…but you know what? God forbid they risk getting millions of dollars for being great at putting a sphere through a ring. Protect them from themselves!” Of course, there are those who favor a higher NBA hurdle and a higher military age requirement. But I’m hearing sneakers squeak over their silence on the latter matter. Oh, and the email address is ethanstra@gmail.com if you can parse support of the military’s stance while also favoring a 20 year rule in hoops. I’m waiting by the keyboard, ready to learn.

Fans, basketball pundits, friends of my

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Basketball Culture 101: The Last Shot

Miss B: Do you ever wonder what it’s like for the kids in Coney Island who don’t play basketball? What are they supposed to do?

Disco: What do you mean, “kids who don’t play ball?” … Basketball is all we got. There ain’t nothing else to do in Coney Island.

Miss B: I know. That’s exactly my point.

Space is a funny thing.

I’m not talking about space like Mars space, or some Star Trek “Final Frontier”-type space. I mean the actual personal concept – having a space. Think about what you’re doing right now. You’re probably sitting at a desk or on a couch, pouring your mind into a computer screen, reading words that are in a space – but not a physical space, a cyberspace. Depending on your social class, you’re probably doing it in a room in your house or apartment. Or maybe you’re out – lucky enough to have a desk job that allows you to use a computer, or perhaps at a library or coffee shop, or even using HoopSpeak to distract you from a class. (If you’re in Yago’s class, turn this off now! Pay attention!) This is probably taking place in your rural, suburban, or urban area, mostly defined by the economic similarities between the landowners.

Or maybe you’re at Coney Island. The space, originally designated for immigrants coming to the New World, has since been stripped down and rebuilt as a multitude of housing projects for poor minority families, buried deep in the southeast corner of New York City. That’s the area where Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot is set. If it were a stage, it’d be described as “dimly lit.”  Coney Island is a “final stop” on four NYC subway lines (D/F/N/Q, and yes, I know

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Larry and Magic: What might have been might have been bad

The way they were

In Ryan DeGama’s contribution to HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101 series, he discusses the notion of Bird-Magic as a golden era for the NBA. The controlling narratives of their1980s rivalry were effective in part because they so easy to define: East vs. West, Showtime vs. Hustle, Purple vs. Green, Black vs. White, Larry vs. Magic. But more important than these differences, as DeGama points out, the basketball was brilliant. Through the meritocracy of hoops, opposites became equals. It’s a great and true story, but I couldn’t help focusing on how this image of Bird and Magic is preserved in our cultural memory because of the sad ways in which their careers ended.

Bird’s body broke down in the tail end of his prime and Magic’s career was never the same after he was diagnosed with HIV (although I join the way their career’s ended in the “before their time” aspect, I do not at all mean to equate heel and back problems with contracting HIV). More importantly, because the two stars’ bodies were compromised with potentially productive years left, an artificial limit was placed on their “era.” DeGama’s article made me wonder what would have happened had Magic and Bird been able to compete at a high level into the early/mid 1990s. Not only would the way we remember the Golden Age of the 1980s (side note: how many other things do we really cherish from the 1980s the way we unironically cherish Bird vs. Magic?), but I could see it having a dramatic impact on our NBA sensibilities today.

Imagine Bird and Johnson play major minutes for good teams until, say, 1994. If Michael Jordan kicks their butts for the last five years of their careers, does this change the way we remember Larry

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What if LeBron and Wade could shoot?

One of the most common, and generally valid, criticisms of LeBron James is that he doesn’t post up enough. I think he’s doing good work to become more comfortable on the low block, but also that the Heat would be better served if LeBron, and Wade for that matter, increased their three point shooting ability.

Sports Illustrated’s Zach Lowe briefly alluded to the way the Heat are increasingly running Wade and LeBron off of single and stagger screens. The sets are currently designed to feed Wade or LeBron the ball in the optimal scenario—curling with a head of steam and an angle to the rim. This movement has been an effective means of freeing James and Wade from the attention that defenses can pay them when they attempt to initiate their offense off the dribble. All either wing needs is an inch to either turn the corner to the rim, or rise up for a fifteen foot jumper. But these actions rarely are designed to get either star a 3-point look.

That’s understandable; LeBron and Wade are weak three point shooters at 33.6% and 30% respectively. That’s why the Heat brought in guys like Mike Miller and Mike Bibby, and re-signed James Jones. The plan was for Wade and LeBron to create and everyone else to cash in. But when the Heat put Bosh, LeBron and Wade on the court at the same time, there is almost never more than one above average bomber on the court because Spoelstra has consistently played Bosh at power forward alongside Eric Grampier or Joel Anthony.

Recently, the Heat have made some headway on their half court offense by facilitating better ball movement and pressuring specific matchups in the post (as when Dwyane Wade bullied the Spurs’ George Hill and Bosh mutilated Matt

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