TrueHoop: Phil Jackson


March, 19, 2014
By Matthew Trammell
Special to
Carmelo Kerry WashingtonGetty ImagesThe Knicks' 2013-14 season has been filled with more drama than an arc on the series "Scandal."
I’ll be the first to admit: I’m a New Yorker before I’m a sports fan. So the extent of my interest is typically predicated by which of our flagship squads plow into the postseason in any given year. This means I’ve spent autumns with the Yankees and winters with the Giants, but up until now I’ve only casually followed the Knicks.

This season has been different, for reasons I hadn’t quite anticipated. Though I’ve watched from the metaphorical nosebleeds -- a second half here, a phone update there -- I’ve been engrossed by the season’s narrative and how it’s resonating in a city like New York at a time as transitional and unpredictable as the present.

The Knicks have performed poorly, sure, but they still garner headlines and fill seats because they tend to fail in a truly engrossing way only the Knicks can: A-plus tweeter @desusnice refers to it, almost affectionately, as “Knicking.”

Defensive blunders, fourth-quarter meltdowns and the coaching equivalent of a crazed partner have added up to not only a difficult season, but also -- in a cathartic, primal-scream kind of way -- must-see TV. The Knicks are ABC’s “Scandal” for basketball fans: a dizzying, at times cringe-worthy guilty pleasure, best experienced with close friends and strong drinks.

The story arc bends wider every week -- Will Mike Woodson go? Will Melo stay? A Heat win? A gun charge? An MSG protest? Phil Jackson?! -- and every game feels like life or death. New Yorkers aren’t known for their sympathy, so it’s easy to imagine a city of the disgruntled throwing up their hands and remotes in exhaustion. But we don’t.

Folks tune in every night and talk, text and tweet through the pain. It’s not only because we know anything is possible and the numbers haven’t doomed them just yet -- as evinced by their current six-game tear -- but also because on some level, this year’s Knicks narrative fits New York’s current moment more accurately than any dramatized TV series ever could.

The Knicks' season has become symbolic of a city that has never been more relevant on the world’s stage and never been more conflicted within its own walls. Its creative output is bleak, compared to the artpop '60s, grainy '70s and experimental '90s. Its economy is one of the county’s most rigidly slanted, with staggering wealth gaps and neighborhood borders in constant flux. Mayor Bill de Blasio feels like the kind of guy who waits until he’s in front of the turnstile to fish out his MetroCard and gets the “PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN” display three times.

We are touted year after year as a city of innovation and creation, rebellion and dissent, revelatory mornings and chaotic, white-knuckle nights, where upstarts and outcasts from all over the world make their pilgrimage to incept their wildest dreams with wilder ones. But we’ve also overbranded and underdeveloped, selling a dream of boundless possibility but offering clear ceilings and shrinking walls to the same rooted communities that give New York its identity. Unlike the Frankensteinian Nets, a freak experiment that’s just feeling its way into the cultural fabric of the city, the Knicks feel more outerborough than ever, embodying the neighborhoods and blocks that also don’t win that often.

[+] EnlargePhil Jackson
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesWill Phil Jackson write the happy ending New York is looking for?
Despite their high profile, frequent broadcasts and tremendous net worth, the Knicks remain a fringe team compared to marquee clubs like the Heat, Bulls and Lakers, who have all been to at least the conference finals in one of the past four postseasons. And the franchise is one of the few remaining institutions of New York culture that hasn’t been wiped clean of the city’s residue. It’s no coincidence Spike Lee -- long a cultural loudspeaker for New York and an Madison Square Garden courtside staple -- was moved to vocally denounce the confusing, lopsided vision of “progress” that has descended on Brooklyn and beyond.

Lee’s courtside antics are a part of the show, of course, and the red-lined neighborhoods he highlights in his films and his rants have gone from isolated pockets of New York history to menu items for an increasingly predatory culture of expansion and development. As the “underdog” narrative has gained relevance in real-estate wars across the city, the Knicks can be seen as fighting to defend their legacy as fervently as these neighborhoods defend their facades -- well aware that history suggests their efforts may be in vain.

And then there’s Carmelo Anthony: an undeniable star player who has carried his team and produced record-breaking numbers this season, still left to shoulder the hefty weight of the Knicks’ futility. He plays the ever-tortured protagonist in this comedy of errors, and speaks to the frustration and despair that settles in when you realize, loss after loss, that even being the best in this city still isn’t good enough, as countless natives and transplants alike have learned the hard way. If anything, New York holds such prominence in our nation’s consciousness because it’s the one place you can truly discover your rank in the world, against your smartest, fastest, most capable peers.

When asked how he’d feel to bring a championship to the city, newly named president of basketball operations Phil Jackson said, winking: “You’ve jumped a long ways away. But we hope it’s going to happen” -- all but leaving out “tune in next week, same Knicks channel, same Knicks time.”

It’s the latest plot twist this season, cliffhanging on a vague promise of a “Zen front office” and a “competitive team.”

It isn’t easy to be a Knicks fan, and it isn’t easy to be a New Yorker. But it’s how you handle your big losses that define your stay here, whether for a season, or a lifetime.

“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” Jackson evoked during his introductory news conference. Cliché? Sure. But that’s why it makes for great cable TV.

Matthew Trammell is a writer from Brooklyn. He subtweets and favorites from @trmmll.

Zen Garden

March, 14, 2014
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
Amin Elhassan tells us what Phil Jackson brings to the Knicks and what it means for Carmelo Anthony's future.

Phil Jackson doesn't know everything

March, 13, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Phil JacksonJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesIt's hard to argue with Phil Jackson's results, but does his Phil-first process fit the modern NBA?
Phil Jackson is the Winston Churchill of the NBA. He won the biggest wars with a combination of old-school toughness and new-school guile.

Victory in hand, the dominant equation for both became: Big mouth + bigger ego = the verbal victory lap. Any quote book is loaded with Churchill’s high-testosterone patter. Jackson’s latest book, ostensibly about teamwork, has a title that has only to do with Jackson. Michael Jordan didn't win "Eleven Rings." Neither did Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal or Scottie Pippen. Only Phil did.

Jackson is expected to return to the NBA, as a New York Knicks executive, packing not just a lot of the NBA’s gravitas, but the majority of it. Add up all your other coaches, players and experts. If Phil says they’re full of it ... his voice is even money to carry the day.

That has to be a big part of why Jackson could mean so much to a team like the Knicks. The common denominator of their dominant commonness has been bad front-office decision-making, specifically one high-profile overspend after another. There's no arguing James Dolan is an owner without a clue, determined to bludgeon the competition not with his insight, but with his wallet -- a method that, for a bundle of league-wide cap reasons, always makes teams difficult to improve and almost never ends in titles.

[+] EnlargePhil Jackson
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPhil Jackson's resume alone isn't going to erase the Knicks' woes
If Jackson arrives in New York packing the stature to silence the Knicks’ most foolish impulses, he’ll be a titan. Dolan’s piles of gold -- as a businessman, Dolan is no laughingstock; the Knicks make money -- would be so much shinier with the polish of wisdom.

The Knicks might already be the world’s most over-loved team. New York hoops fans, those hopeless romantics, have been dashing their hearts on the rocks of false optimism since the days of Patrick Ewing. Remember when Zach Randolph was the revolution? Amar’e Stoudemire? Carmelo Anthony?

Time and again, Dolan has gotten his man. Time and again, like Charlie Brown, the fans have believed. Time and again, the only thing needed to prove Dolan got the wrong man has been time.

Will this time be different?

I’m convinced the answer is no, and not because Jackson’s the wrong guy, but because this is the wrong time.

It’s too late. The league is changing too fast, learning too much, and Jackson, for all the open-mindedness that once led him to the novel and wonderful triangle offense, has been telegraphing his incuriousness for more than a decade.

This is not just basketball’s boom time for analytics, it’s also, as Nate Silver wrote recently in ESPN The Magazine, when analytics become basketball necessities, as opposed to niceties. From the stew of SportVu, Catapult and Vantage comes things that really matter: which pick-and-roll defenses stops which ball handlers, which offenses generate the best-quality looks, who plays good defense, the right number of hours to sleep before a big game and, increasingly, which players need to come out of the game right now before their fatigue-induced injury risk skyrockets.

It’s not that any one person knows ALL the right answers. It’s that no ONE person knows all the right answers. Much of this new stuff will prove to science bunk, but the best of it is exponentially better by the day. The only right answer is to be curious.

And at that, the league has passed Jackson by. All his books, all those interviews, all that insight into his thinking, and has he ever even once told of finding value in insight from a younger generation? Or, indeed, from anyone beyond his chosen short list of apostles?

Jackson spoke at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As he did, I took notes, but I soon stopped. There was no point. Other than a rude joke about needing a “grain elevator” to weigh Shaq, these were all things told previously. The oft-recited Gospel According to St. Phil. His conversation was a museum piece, the recurring soup of the words “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant” and “Scottie Pippen” that Jackson has been ladling out forever.

More importantly, Jackson was not at Sloan to learn. Never has been. Tuning people out, and discrediting them even, is also a mainstay of Jackson’s game -- just ask Jerry West, or Jerry Krause.

Jackson’s Lakers never bothered to attend the stat-geek confab, and the Lakers were famously the only NBA team not to have a representative there last year. Jackson’s generic public take on basketball innovation has long been, essentially, that Red Holzman and Tex Winter knew all that stuff.

At Sloan, Jackson bragged of once playing O’Neal 48 minutes per game -- on the same day sport scientist Michael Regan, of Catapult Sports, explained how resting after stints of just eight minutes dramatically improved performance in Australian Rules Football, a league that’s enjoying massive injury reductions league-wide thanks to science-based things we've learned only in the past decade.

It’s not that Jackson can’t make the Knicks winners. He might. Indeed, as the argument goes, at least he has won, unlike everyone else in the building. But he’s sending all the wrong signals if the task is to outclass 29 other teams in a race starting in 2014. That prize will, almost certainly, go to whoever best masters new ideas, about which Phil says, basically: Who needs ‘em?

The cautionary tale here of course is in Charlotte. Michael Jordan also filled the staff with like-minded friends. But, of course, a great executive is far more than a great player who lost his spring or a great coach who tired of travel. Without piling one good decision on top of another, the team is lost. The Bobcats did everything Jordan’s way for a while, until the competitive forces humbled even Jordan, who now listens not just to his gut and his friends, but also to people such as new executive Rich Cho, who is effectively the team’s ambassador from the post-Jordan, Sloan-infused world of hoops insight.

Jackson and the Knicks aren't playing the exact same tune as MJ and the Bobcats -- they have deeper pockets and more intricate team-building experience -- but they’re sounding a lot of the same notes.

Spurs limit touches to make Z-Bo a no-go

May, 19, 2013
By Gregg Found, Justin Page & Sunny Saini, ESPN Stats & Info

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The Spurs made a franchise-record 14 three-pointers and limited Zach Randolph to two points.

The San Antonio Spurs didn't yield a point to Zach Randolph until there was 9:26 left on the clock in the fourth quarter. By that point, the Spurs already had an 18-point lead.

So it went for Randolph, who entered the game leading the Memphis Grizzlies in scoring this postseason with 19.7 points per game.

Randolph finished with two points, a playoff career low in games where he played at least 10 minutes.

The Spurs limited him to just 11 offensive touches. ESPN Stats & Info video tracking defined those as "touches on the offensive end of the floor," including offensive rebounds.

What's more, only two of Randolph's 11 offensive touches came in a post-up situation. Entering the game the Grizzlies led the NBA in scoring from post-ups this postseason with 221 points (20.1 per game).

Spurs three-for-all
The Spurs set a franchise playoff record by hitting 14 three-pointers in the game.

They spread those 14 three-pointers among six different players while the Grizzlies three-pointers were made by only one player: Quincy Pondexter.

And in what must make Gregg Popovich happy, all 14 of the Spurs three-pointers were assisted.

The Spurs spread the bounty there, too. While six different players made a three-pointer, seven different players assisted on one. That includes kick-out passes from Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.

Spotting Pop a lead
Now the Grizzlies are looking at 1-0 deficit against a coach that has won more than 120 playoff games and four championships.

Gregg Popovich is 19-3 all-time in best-of-seven playoff series when his team wins Game 1. His .864 series win percentage after Game 1 wins ranks only behind Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach among head coaches with 15 postseason series worth of experience all-time.

Both Jackson (36-0 series record) and Auerbach (15-0) had perfect series records after winning the opener.

Phil Jackson's reality check

April, 2, 2013
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
In a video interview with HuffPost Live, Phil Jackson is asked whether sports organizations and players need to be more inclusive of gay athletes.

Jackson, who played 12 seasons in the NBA and coached for 20, winning 11 championships along the way, had this response:
That's a ridiculous question. I mean, none of us have probably ever seen it in all our careers. There's no inclusiveness to be had, so it's really a strange question.

Jackson was then asked whether he meant there were no gay athletes in the NBA, to which he responded, "I've never run into it in all my career."

Interesting, because in summer 2000, Jackson was entering his second season as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won the 1999-2000 NBA championship. The Lakers were in the market for a skilled backup center who could fit seamlessly into the triangle. Jackson reached out to free agent John Amaechi, who was coming off a solid season with the Orlando Magic.

Amaechi came out as an openly gay man in 2007, less than four years after his retirement from the NBA. In his book, "Man in the Middle," Amaechi recounts the scene with Jackson:
For a free agent center, there's nothing quite like the sight of Phil Jackson pulling up on his black Harley. It's a pretty good indication that you are wanted, big time. Words are almost beside the point.

Over waffles at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, I chatted with Jackson and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak -- a pretty good big man in his own right.

The previous night I'd enjoyed dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall Italian place with another Laker legend, Jerry West, so there wasn't much serious business to conduct at the Wilshire. As vice president, West had laid out the team's plans for me ... They had seen me improve, they had been impressed with my work ethic, fundamental play, and the way I flourished as a role player. They were confident I would thrive in their system.

I was to back up Shaq, save him a little wear and tear, contribute my customary 7 to 11 points per game. Pull down a few boards, take up some space in the paint. Root for the stars. Contribute to team chemistry. It was far from superstardom, but not a bad day job.

Among these men, there was a quiet unspoken certainty not just about my role but about the larger mission: replicating the dynasty Jackson and Jordan had created in Chicago. And I was to play a role, albeit a complementary role.

There were many things I wanted to talk about with the bearded, leather-jacketed Jackson. I would benefit from playing for a coach who sought me out in part because he saw parallels in my own cerebral approach.

Despite an aggressive courtship by the Lakers' brass, Amaechi ultimately decided to stay in Orlando to be close to two teenagers he was mentoring closely and whom he'd ultimately adopt.

The Lakers survived and prospered, and it's unlikely Jackson has spent much time, if any, thinking about those waffles. But the breakfast is a matter of record, no matter how hazy or selective his memory.


Twitter reacts to Mike D'Antoni hire

November, 12, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Conversation starters for 2012-13

October, 31, 2012
By Kevin Arnovitz and Beckley Mason

Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.

1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?

Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.

But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.

The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.

Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?

I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.

Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …

2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?

Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.

Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.

That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?

Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.

Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.

Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
Mason: I agree, particularly because it takes a certain ingenuity to be a truly great offensive player. That’s just not the case on the defensive end, where position, intelligence and effort are the hallmarks of excellence.

I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?

Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).

Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...

3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?

Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.

You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.

In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.

Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.

So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.

The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.

Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.

4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?

Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.

The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.

Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
Arnovitz: Development is another one of the great unknowns in basketball, and here’s a head-scratcher of a case study:

5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?

Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.

The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.

He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.

Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?

Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).

Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.

If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.

Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...

6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?

Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.

Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.

I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.

Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.

Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?

Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.

As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.

I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.

Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.

TrueHoop TV: When tempers flare

May, 1, 2012
Abbott By Henry Abbott

The Last Shot: Jordan uninterrupted

February, 28, 2012
Mason By Beckley Mason
The Shot
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

At HoopIdea, we’ve talked about the importance of continuous, live-ball action at the ends of games. Here is perhaps the best example ever.

Remember this?

With one minute remaining in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, John Stockton fed Karl Malone on the left block, circled through the key and found himself wide open on the opposite wing. Malone zipped the ball to Stockton, who nailed a huge 3 to put the Utah Jazz up 86-83 over the Chicago Bulls with 41.9 seconds to go.

The next 36 seconds of nonstop play may rank as the best in the history of the NBA.

Inbounding from half-court, Chicago quickly enters the ball to Michael Jordan and spreads the floor. With Utah’s help defenders occupied, Jordan hesitates and then blows past Bryon Russell for a layup that cuts the lead to a single point and takes only five seconds off the clock.

Pulses pounding, the Jazz jog the ball up court and again Stockton looks for Malone on the left block. This time the Jazz use a Jeff Hornacek cross-screen to free up Malone, but Hornacek’s defender, Jordan, never leaves the paint. As Malone catches the ball, Jordan instantly swoops in from the baseline side, swipes down on the ball and knocks it away from the stunned Malone.

Suddenly, instead of controlling the clock, score and ball, the Jazz are on their heels heading back on defense. Jordan dribbles up the left wing with 17 seconds on the clock while his teammates fan out along the 3-point line.

Seconds evaporate as Bryon Russell crouches on Jordan’s left hip.

Then it all happens:

Dennis Rodman cuts through to clear the middle of the floor.

Jordan dips his left shoulder, takes a hard, long dribble, gives Russell a slight shove and pulls back.

Russell slides to the floor, Jordan elevates, the ball swishes through the net.

It’s the most famous shot in NBA history.

As incredible and dynamic as Jordan was in that sequence, part of what made it so intense and iconic was that his brilliance was never interrupted. Reader Alex Bogach reminded us of this, writing “part of what makes MJ's shot so special, in my opinion, is that when Jordan steals the ball there is no timeout called. Perhaps a ‘no timeout while the ball is live’ rule could make the game more entertaining.”

Not calling timeout is different from not having a plan. On the final shot, it’s Rodman’s cut across the middle that removes the defender Russell might have expected to offer help. Because the Bulls were prepared for this scenario, the Jazz do not have time to decide how to defend Jordan on the last play. Russell is left on an island, and we are left with one of the defining moments in sports history.

What can (Mike) Brown do for L.A.?

May, 26, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
With Mike Brown tabbed as the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, things likely will look different in Los Angeles next season, but not as much as some would have you believe.

Out goes the famed Triangle Offense? Brown's teams in Cleveland had some similarities offensively to the Lakers of last season.

Under Mike Brown, the Cleveland Cavaliers showed a reliance on spot-up shooting -- more than 20 percent of the plays run under Brown ended up with a spot-up jump shot. The highest percentage of offensive plays run by the 2010-11 Lakers ended with spot-up jump shots at almost 18 percent.

Brown comes with the pedigree of having coached an NBA superstar in LeBron James. One of the reasons Brown may have been hired is his willingness to let his star players run isolation plays.

More than a quarter of James' plays under Brown were isolation plays, with his highest number coming in 2009-10 when it was 31.2 percent. Last season, Kobe Bryant ran 30.3 percent of his plays in isolation. Over the last three seasons that number sits at 31.3 percent.

However, LA's offense also featured a high percentage of post-up plays, something the Cavaliers did not used frequently in Brown's system. His teams ran post-up plays on less than 10 percent of all offensive sets. Brown's ability to get the Lakers interior players adequately involved will be something to focus on in his first season with the team.

While the Lakers offense will likely garner most of the attention, Brown is known first as a defensive coach, having come from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree. In each of Brown's five seasons as a head coach, his team finished in the top half in the league in defensive rating, a metric that measures points allowed per 100 possessions.

Last season, Cleveland dropped all the way to 29th in the league, after finishing seventh in defense rating during the 2009-10 season.

Brown inherits a team that has finished no worse than sixth in defensive rating in each of the last four seasons, and should be expected keep the Lakers among the best defensive teams in the NBA.

His biggest challenge defensively will be motivating a team that appeared frustrated and lackadaisical while being swept by the Dallas Mavericks. In that series, the Lakers allowed the Mavericks to shoot nearly 50 percent from the field and connect on 46.2 percent of its 3-point attempts, many of which were uncontested.

Paul bests Bryant as Hornets take Game 1

April, 17, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
The New Orleans Hornets provided the second stunner of the day upsetting the Los Angeles Lakers to take a 1-0 series lead.

According to Elias, this is was the 16th time a team coached by Phil Jackson opened their postseason at home, but the first time the team lost.

Chris Paul
The Hornets were able to pull off the victory thanks to point guard Chris Paul who scored 33 points while dishing out 14 assists.

Paul scored or assisted on 25 of the Hornets 34 field goals while he was on the court.

In the first half he picked up 10 of those assists, getting his teammates involved as the Hornets took an eight-point lead to halftime.

Then after the break Paul picked up the scoring load with 22 points in the final 24 minutes.

He created more opportunities for himself getting to the free throws 12 times in the second half alone after taking no free throws in the first.

It marked the fifth time in his playoff career that Paul notched 30 points and 10 assists, tied with Kobe Bryant for the most such games since 2008.

Speaking of Bryant he scored 34 points, his 79th career 30-point game in the playoffs, but it was Paul who controlled the game.

Combining points scored and points scored off assists, Paul created 63 points for the Hornets compared to just 46 by Bryant.

Kobe took 26 shots for the Lakers -- the rest of the starting five combined to take only 32.

The Lakers fell to 9-9 this season when he shoots 25 or more times.

The matchup to watch for Bryant the rest of this series will be when he’s guarded by former Laker Trevor Ariza.

Game footage showed, through the first three quarters Bryant torched Ariza scoring 20 points when guarded by him. However Ariza won the battle in the fourth holding Bryant scoreless when matched up against him.

While his brother Marc Gasol (24 points) helped the Memphis Grizzlies pull of the first upset of the day, Pau Gasol was held to only eight points, his fewest in a playoff game since joining the Lakers.

He only attempted nine shots despite playing 37 minutes.

With David West out for the season due to injury, the Lakers entered the series with a distinct frontcourt advantage.

However the tandem of Gasol and Andrew Bynum (13 points) were matched by Carl Landry (17) and Emeka Okafor (4) with 21 points, providing the Hornets with an unlikely boost.

Phil Jackson and the elephant

April, 14, 2011
Adande By J.A. Adande
“Let’s talk about the playoffs, OK?” Phil Jackson said.

Only he didn’t, at least to the level of detail he usually does when the postseason rolls around and Jackson customarily becomes very x-and-o oriented. The media wasn’t that interested in hearing how the Lakers match up with the Hornets, in part because it’s a first-round series that will go beyond four games only if the Lakers display the inconsistent effort that has plagued them throughout the season. There are far too many big-picture questions to zero in on execution of the triangle offense.

The enigmatic nature of this squad was one of the topics of conversation, with Jackson admitting that the last 25 games of the season “don’t make sense in a lot of ways” in that the Lakers had a 17-1 stretch followed by a five-game losing streak, followed by back-to-back victories.

“Some of it’s about losing focus,” Jackson said.

You wonder if Jackson himself will have his customary focus as he enters what he says will be the final playoff run of his glorious coaching career. His pending retirement will be a recurring theme, in part because he’ll probably keep taking questions on it. Last year he spent a remarkable amount of time discussing whether or not he’d be returning, often right up until the final hour before playoff games. Jackson knows that simply ignoring a topic won’t make it go away.

“It’s the elephant in the living room,” he said of his retirement. “Or in the bedroom, depending on where you want to put that elephant.”

He’s been through a similar situation before, when he entered the Bulls’ three-peat quest in the 1998 playoffs with the idea that he wouldn’t be coming back.

“Retiring and leaving this team is not at all like what happened in Chicago, where a number of players were dissolving and the team knew that they were being broken up, just by virtue of the fact that there was going to be a lockout or whatever was going to happen between that season and ’98 and ’99,” Jackson said. “Of course, as you saw, there were only three or four members of that Bulls team that came back at all. This [Lakers team] is a team that will probably stay intact with most of its players. I’m the one that’s on his way to retirement. So it’s very interesting. It’s something that we have to acknowledge and go through it, but it’s not ‘Win one for the Gipper' or 'Win one for Phil.’

“I’m looking forward to going through this thing, giving every bit of energy I have right to the final part. The days off, I’m not thinking about what it’s going to be next year at this time or anything like that.”

You wonder if, intrinsically, players will feel less obligated to obey a coach they know won’t be around next year. For the Lakers these playoffs will be like the final days of an elementary school year.

Jackson admits, “They’ve treated me like a lame duck … by not letting me control their minds when they’ve gone on some errant journeys out there on the floor and some irrational behavior that I’m not appreciative of.”

Kobe Bryant went off on his own at the end of regulation in the season finale in Sacramento, firing off five missed shots before making the game-tying 3-pointer. Jackson included Bryant among the things that the Lakers will have to “corral” in the playoffs, but acknowledged that, “This is a guy who smells blood in the water and goes for it … that goes with what he’s made up of and the DNA that he has.” He also said that Bryant’s will “is as strong as anybody who’s ever played this game.”

You know full well whom else Jackson has coached. And speaking of Michael Jordan, I was curious as to why Jackson didn’t design the Bulls’ final play of the 1993 NBA Finals for Michael Jordan. Jordan gave up the ball in the backcourt to Scottie Pippen, who passed to Horace Grant, who threw the ball out to John Paxson for the winning 3-pointer. Jackson said the play was based on reading the defense, and he’d like Bryant to apply that thought as well.

So in that regard his final playoff run will be similar to his initial ones in that he’ll need to get his superstar to buy into the team concept. Will Bryant and the rest of the team give Jackson his full attention? Will his mind understandably stray into the unknown of what lies ahead? These aren’t typical questions we have about a Phil Jackson team during the playoffs. Then again, this isn’t the typical Phil Jackson posteason. Even the first press conference felt different.

Lakers title hopes may already be dashed

April, 12, 2011
By ESPN Stats & Info
Even if the Los Angeles Lakers end their losing streak against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, history suggests the damage to their championship aspirations may be irreparable.

The Lakers’ current losing streak sits at five, which is bad news considering that none of the 11 teams Phil Jackson coached to an NBA title ever suffered a losing streak of more than three games during the regular season.

Only two teams since the merger have had a longer losing streak than the Lakers current five-game skid at any point of the season before winning the title. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons (who defeated the Lakers in that season’s NBA Finals) and the 1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics each had six-game losing streaks during their championship seasons.

The Lakers’ most recent loss, Sunday to the Oklahoma City Thunder, only worsened their odds to win it all. Sunday was their 11th home loss this season. No Phil Jackson team has lost more than 10 home games in a season and gone on to win the NBA title.

One of the major weaknesses of the Lakers during their current skid has been their play down the final stretch of games. The issues have been primarily on the defensive end, where the Lakers have not been able to get stops in "crunch time.”

Opponents are shooting more than 70 percent from the field in "crunch time," which is defined as a five-point game with five minutes remaining or less. Adding insult to injury, in three of five games during the losing streak, the Lakers held leads inside of five minutes remaining in the game (held one-point leads against the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Thunder).

Nuggets, Nets and Cavs discussed Melo

January, 6, 2011
Broussard By Chris Broussard
It's looking more and more like Carmelo Anthony will remain in Denver until the Feb. 24 trade deadline, and after all this time, the New Jersey Nets remain the Nuggets' preferred trading partner.

The Nets and Nuggets have discussed various trade scenarios, and just before Christmas they nearly worked out a three-team deal involving the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to league sources.

The Nets have a standing offer of rookie Derrick Favors, two first-round draft picks and Troy Murphy on the table, but last month, sources said the Nuggets aren't interested in Murphy because they would inherit the remaining $8 million on his expiring contract. So the Nets brought in Cleveland and its $14.5 million trade exception.

Denver would have received Favors, Devin Harris and three first-round picks. Cleveland would have received Murphy and one or two first-round picks, and the Nets would have received Anthony, Al Harrington and the Cavaliers' trade exception, the sources said.

Beyond the sticking point of Anthony’s accepting or refusing to sign the long-term extension with New Jersey, the deal fell apart because both Denver and Cleveland wanted the 2012 first-round pick the Nets got from Golden State in the Marcus Williams trade. That pick is protected through the first seven slots.

While Denver never asked for the Nets' five first-round picks, New Jersey might have wound up sending those five picks to the Nuggets and the Cavs. Losing all those first-rounders makes the Nets squeamish, as does not getting back a point guard if they have to give up Harris.

Because it has Ty Lawson, Denver doesn't have much need for Harris. But the Nuggets were hoping they might be able to send Harris, whom Portland covets, to the Trail Blazers for Andre Miller and Nicolas Batum, according to sources. It was likely wishful thinking because Portland has no intention of moving Batum.

While Chauncey Billups' name has been mentioned with Anthony's in trade rumors, Billups' desire is to remain in Denver, which is his hometown.

There's some feeling throughout the league that the Nuggets' lack of interest in Murphy will subside by the trade deadline because by then, he'll be owed only about $3.5 million this season.

While the Nets remain enamored with Anthony, there are some within the organization who wonder if the club might be better off keeping Favors and its five first-round picks and building through the draft. In the end, however, if the Nets can get Anthony, they'll pull the trigger.

New York still in Melo hunt

The Knicks remain Anthony's preferred destination, but the superstar forward also wants that three-year, $64.4 million contract extension. Leon Rose, Anthony's agent, has discussed trade scenarios with the Knicks and Nets, and the Knicks have tried to use the probable lockout to their advantage.

With the owners hoping to make current contracts fit within the confines of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, the Knicks are telling Rose that Anthony's $64.4 million extension may not be worth that much anyway, that it may get slashed once the new CBA is in place. So, of course, why not just wait and sign with the Knicks as a free agent, or so New York's argument goes.

Around the league, executives are skeptical about the Knicks' chances of trading for Anthony. Denver remains cold toward a Knicks offer, and while New York insists it can get a first-round pick (most likely for Anthony Randolph), rival executives are saying, "Why haven't they gotten the pick yet?''

Phil and Ron

People close to Ron Artest say his confrontation with coach Phil Jackson during a Lakers practice a week-and-a-half ago stemmed from Artest's sincere belief that if Jackson is going to call him out publicly, he should also call other players out publicly.

Everyone in Lakers Nation knew Jackson was holding his tongue in regards to Kobe Bryant's one-on-one play, so Artest figured Jackson should have held his tongue about him as well, at least publicly.

Artest let Jackson know as much when they met privately after the confrontation, and perhaps that's why Jackson made his Kobe "screwed up the game'' comments a few days later.

While the confrontation made huge news, neither Artest, Jackson nor the rest of the organization viewed it as being a big deal.

Monday Bullets

December, 27, 2010
By Benjamin Polk
  • Those of you who are sick of reading about how good LeBron James is, should definitely not read this fine Hoopspeak post. Although if it means anything to you, it's also about how Ron Artest didn't play so well on Saturday. I'm kidding, of course. Everybody should read it.
  • Right now, all NBA journalism is threatening to devolve into the "did you see what Blake Griffin did yesterday?" show. On a totally different note, did you see what Blake Griffin did yesterday?
  • John Wall is stunningly quick and he can do a wicked Dougie. But last night Tony Parker, like the good Spur that he is, was the one playing the extraordinarily efficient basketball. I'm sure he's also a great dancer.
  • At the Heat Index, Kevin Arnovitz tells us--exactly and exhaustively--what the Heat's defense did to the Lakers on Saturday. As always, it seems, great defense comes down to trust and a "fundamental, almost religious, devotion by the entire team" to the group concept.
  • I'm not what you might call a visual learner. Before I really understand a map or chart I usually have to go through a few rounds of staring, folding, unfolding, wearing it as pants. Nonetheless, the folks at Hoopism made a visual representation of every player on every team ever that is really pretty cool. As a Wolves' fan its hugely rewarding to see the names "Gundars Vetra," "Lance Blanks" and "Charles Shackleford" all in one place.
  • Whenever the Timberwolves win, we at A Wolf Among Wolves have ourselves a party. That this party includes extreme expressions of exasperation at aimless defense and mind-blowing shot selection just comes with the territory. Do we care that two of the Wolves' seven wins have come against the Cavs? We do, sort of.
  • Missing from my discussion of the new Suns was an assessment of the blockbuster trade that brought Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus into the fold. Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns gives us just that. Here's the short term and the long term.
  • At Basketball Prospectus, Sebastian Pruiti tells us that although Derrick Rose has indeed added the three to his arsenal, his midrange shooting has actually gotten worse. Just another example of the disappointing fact that, although Rose does almost everything beautifully, he doesn't always do it effectively.
  • Aggressively hedging screens is a great way to deter a dynamic ballhandler like Rose. But NBA Playbook tells us that if you do it too early, you could be cooked. Yes, I just made two separate Sebastian Pruiti links. It's because he's awfully smart.
  • Brian Robb of CelticsHub talks to Celtics' radio play-by-play man Sean Grande. It will make you want to listen to Celtics' games on the radio. Most interesting, I thought, was their discussion of the effect of Rajon Rondo's absence on the C's offense.
  • On the New York Times's Off the Dribble blog, Rob Mahoney describes the ebb and flow of the Thunder's fortunes as a "Spursian rhythm," which sounds awesome. He also provides a really nice chart that I had to stare at for a while. Regardless, says Mahoney, you should get ready for OKC to surge. You should also read Rob Mahoney whenever you can.
  • Please watch Kurtis Blow rap about basketball. Hear him say that "basketball is my favorite sport/I like the way they dribble up and down the court." See the strange way he stares at the camera as he lip-syncs. Notice that the players in the video seem to be playing on a six-foot hoop. Then watch Master P's (slightly PG-13) "Make 'em Say Ugh." Notice that there is a gold tank on the floor and a gorilla playing for a team called "The Hustlers." Then wonder about our weird culture.
  • Whenever someone tells me that Pau Gasol is "soft" I disagree, and reply that he's actually just "not strong." But now even Phil Jackson is getting in on it. What does it mean when your coach says that a player is "not shooting the ball with a base, he’s kind of just lollygagging, putting a soft kind of release on his shot."? That sounds like a bad thing.
  • Apparently, LeBron James literally does not know the meaning of the word "contraction." Yet another example of why I'm really glad I'm not a famous person.
  • Bethlehem Shoals gives us the final word on Kobe and LeBron (kidding again): "Not only will we never see the question of 'who's better' satisfactorily resolved," says Shoals, "what keeps it going is that, at bottom, the two represent two very different approaches to the game. It's the impossibility of one ever really surpassing the other that keeps this debate going."
  • A sad looking, 33-year-old Steve Francis has been cut from his Chinese professional team. After four games. Think about that and then think about this (check the 1:50 mark).