By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
The NBA All-Star break gave me a little free time to answer many of your letters. Let's check out the best questions in my mailbag:
Why do you hate Kobe Bryant so much? -- Andrew Dixon, Miami
I've said it before ("One-on-one with readers") and I'll say it here again: Kobe is one of my favorite players. Aside from Shaq, he's unquestionably the best player in the NBA. I greatly admire his talent, his creativity, and his competitive spirit. Who's more fun to watch than Kobe?
By not fully accepting the team concept, Kobe is working too hard for his shots and his points. This reduces his available energy to play defense (which has declined markedly this season), minimizes the talents of his teammates (basketball is, after all, played five-on-five), needlessly subjects him to injuries as he constantly challenges the big men (and doesn't get the calls he should be getting from the refs), and creates disharmony on a team where harmony must be paramount.
As good as he is, I believe that Kobe is playing at only 75 percent of his potential. This state of affairs is grossly unfair to his teammates, his fans, and most of all, himself. No, I don't hate Kobe. I just think he's wasting the prime of his career trying to prove something that doesn't need to be proved.
Sometimes between the first and second free throws, the defensive player stationed highest in the lane moves from one side of the lane to the other. Why is this? -- Eric Bates, Los Angeles
The movement is aimed at disrupting the shooter's concentration, and also at altering the immediate environment to (hopefully) discomfort him. Also, by taking up a position to the right of a right-handed shooter, any slight hand or arm movement the defender might make will (hopefully) distract the shooter more than a similar movement on the shooter's left (or blind) side.
Why don't any NBA teams ever use a full- or three-quarter court press for an entire game (or most of a game) like certain college teams do? Wouldn't this be an effective way to kill the opponents' shot clock and force turnovers and bad shots?-- Bobby Moritz, Philadelphia
The problem here is that NBA teams are too good to be pressed full-time. There are always holes in any kind of press, and any half-decent NBA team can find them too easily. Pressing all the time allows the offense to adapt to the rhythm of the defense and easily gain a comfort level. Rick Pitino tried this both in New York and in Boston with varying degrees of success. The Knicks were effective for the early part of the season, and the Celtics were effective for about two weeks.
Aside from the offense getting used to the pressure, pressing requires a tremendous effort by the defensive team. Most NBA players simply do not want to work that hard (as was the case in Boston). Also, because of the effort required, a pressing team needs to go at least 10 deep. That's why a strategic use of extended pressure (say, after a timeout when the offense is unprepared) is the most effective.
What's your take on Rasheed Wallace's game? -- Mike Garringer, Portland, Ore.
Very athletic, explosive off the floor, runs the floor like a guard. Likes to post on left block where he'll turn his right shoulder most of the time for a turnaround jumper. On right block, turns both ways. Will shoot almost always when single-covered in the low post. Doesn't like to drive when facing up a defender -- when he does, goes right nearly always. Not very physical -- the most effective defense against Wallace is to play him tough before he catches in the post. Wants to block every shot he can reach and therefore plays defense on his toes, which makes him too susceptible to ball fakes. Has 3-point range. In all, a wonderful scorer who needs to be partnered with physical types at the 3 and 5.
Wallace's most significant problem, of course, is his lack of self-control, a flaw that skews his judgment and is bound to manifest under pressure. Too bad, because he's an extremely gifted athlete.
Do you think the stars of yesteryear (Wilt, Cousy, West, Russell, etc.) would be able to dominate in today's NBA? -- Seth, Jonesboro, Arkansas
Today's game is faster; the players richer, bigger, faster, more talented, but less fundamentally sound. Mainly because of the increase in size, however, most of the outstanding players in the past would have to play out of position nowadays. Wilt Chamberlain would be an All-Star. Shaq has more offensive tools, but Wilt was quicker off his feet and was a better rebounder and shot-blocker.
Jerry West was only 6-foot-2, yet he had long arms and high shoulders, so he could play as though he were 6-5 or so. Definitely an All-Star.
Russell was a 6-9, 220-pound center. But Russ had the same kind of wiry, tensile strength that MJ has, and the same ferocious competitive spirit. Yes, Russell would be an outstanding player today if he played the middle against certain opponents and otherwise played the power forward spot.
Ed Macauley is another who couldn't play today. At 6-8, 190 pounds, he was too thin even to play small forward.
Bob Pettit would be an All-Star at power forward.
George Mikan would be strictly a bench player. Smart enough, strong enough, mean enough to score in the low post. A terrific passer. But too slow and earth-bound to play acceptable defense.
Oscar Robertson would only average about 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. But, then again, he's 64 years old.
What do you think about the great influx of international players in the NBA? -- Stephen Drew, Charlotte, N.C.
It's great for the game and for the NBA. The international players have several advantages over our home-grown hoopers. Because they get more (and often better) coaching, and because they routinely compete against older, more experienced players, they inevitably have a much better command of fundamentals -- footwork, setting picks, cutting, passing, etc.
Arvydas Sabonis is a vestige of the old school, but the center-sized internationals run the court, shoot 3s, and play a guard-like perimeter game. Internationals are generally less likely to question authority, and more likely to get paid less than their American counterparts. Some observers also believe there's a racial component at work here -- all of the prospects from Eastern and Western Europe are white. Could this be a not so subtle way of limiting the preponderance of black players in the NBA? Unfortunately, this might very well be true.
Why do players hit the "rookie wall"? Is it a lack of conditioning? -- Adam Morrow, Los Angeles
Whereas college teams play approximately 30 games (more if they progress in postseason tournaments), the regular NBA season is nearly three times as long. The added burden is as much mental as it is physical. Compared to college ball, the NBA game requires its players to make many more oncourt decisions and at a much faster pace. So it's really a rookie's concentration that wanes -- getting his body and his mind used to the long games and the long road trips, the up-tempo pace, the physicality, and the strategic complexities.
Do you think the NBA's decision to extend the first-round series to seven games had anything to do with the Lakers entering the playoffs as a low seed? -- Sohan Kota, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Bingo! The Lakers are the league's glamour team, and L.A. is the league's biggest market. As far as TV ratings and arena attendance go, the NBA has a definite financial stake in the Lakers' going as far as possible into the playoffs.
Also, the difference between a best-of-five series and a best-of-seven is immense. In the former, the pressure is on the home (favored) team to sweep the first two home games, since there's only a limited opportunity to reclaim the home-court advantage. Accordingly, a five-games series makes upsets much more likely, while the latter makes it easier for the better team to win.
I've been a Mavericks' fan since the "anti-glory days" of Mike Izzulino, Darren Morningstar and Greg Dreiling. While I'm thrilled that they're headed for a top seed in the playoffs, I'm also worried because they can't seem to beat either the Lakers or the Kings? Why is this so? And what does it suggest for the playoffs? -- Rick Bentley, Abilene, Texas
The Lakers overpower the Mavs, and the Kings are better at the slick, quick-hitting game. Come the playoffs, the Mavs' main problem, however, will be their defense. While their assorted zones are effective when an opponent plays them once every few weeks, the daily scrutiny of a playoff situation will reveal the holes in any zone defense. Since playoff basketball is much more physical anyway (because of this familiarity), don't expect Dallas to come out of the West.
What do you think of Scottie Pippen's renaissance and Portland's chances in the playoffs? -- Michael P. Carson, Dakar, Senegal
More importantly, if anyone has the leadership capabilities to keep Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells under control, it's Pippen. Back in the heyday of the Bulls, most of the players were too afraid of MJ to seek his advice about anything. It was Pippen who (with the exception of one regrettable two-second lapse) kept everything copasetic in Chicago. That said, as long as the Blazers can get more motion into their offense, and minimize Pippen's (and Sabonis') minutes in the regular season, they will be serious contenders in the playoffs.
Why don't you ever write about Kareem Rush? -- Kristen Hessel, Kearney, Mo.
Because I didn't think anybody was interested in him. Anyway, this young man has a tremendous upside. He can shoot, run, see the floor, slither his way to the hoop, and he wants to play defense. He also has a great work ethic. And he's a lefty, a big advantage, since defenders are always suckers for fakes-right. Watch for Rush to be a big-time player in a year or two.
I've often heard that rookies play the game at too fast a pace and this causes problems for them. On the surface, it would seem the faster the better, but it's also true that sometimes too fast is no good. What does it mean to play basketball too fast? -- Jason Beck, Ottawa
What happens is that the pro game is so much faster than the college game that rookies feel they have to do something quickly or they'll be left in everybody else's wake. Timing is such a difficult concept for a youngster to learn -- to just wait for the pick or the pass, for a lane to open for the cut, for the ball to come to him, and then to explode. It's also axiomatic that a young player will revert to his bad habits under pressure, so he's liable to make up his mind to do such-and-such (usually one of his pet moves) even before he catches the ball. Shooting guards, small and power forwards usually need two seasons to master the proper spacing and timing. Point guards and centers need three years.
I know that in football the team with the best defense will win the Super Bowl nine out of 10 times. Why doesn't the NBA play defense? -- Michael McCaffrey, Arena, Wis.
Because of the very nature of the game, an outstanding NFL defense can totally eviscerate an offense. In pro basketball, the measure of good defense is drastically different. If NBA teams didn't play excellent defense, teams would average 130-plus points per game. The problem is that nobody can shut down a "scorer" one-on-one (and most NBA teams have two or three players capable of high-digit scoring). Nobody.
So, defensive strategies have two general options -- let the scorer pile up the points, but control everybody else. Or double-team the scorer and force a lesser scorer to beat you. Otherwise, good defense consists of forcing shooters to shoot under pressure, forcing drivers to "help spots," rotating to seal up holes, ambushing passing lanes, bogarting pivotmen off their favorite spots, delaying cutters and harassing passers to destroy timing, forcing offenses to resort to the third or fourth option on whatever play they're running, and then rebounding.
How many offensive plays does a typical NBA team have for in-bounding the ball under their own basket? It seems that most teams lack creativity in this situation and look just to get the ball in play rather than to gain an immediate scoring opportunity. -- Paul Luedke, Simi Valley, Calif.
Four or five. Even though the ball is very close to the goal, there are several reasons why finding a good shot right away is so difficult: Obviously, everybody in the building knows who's throwing the inbounds pass. Because of the overhanging presence of the backboard, passes to the opposite side of the lane are extremely difficult to execute -- which means that the potential receiver has to be (or be moving to) the same side of the basket as the passer. This makes for easy switching on defense. Because of these restrictions, there are only a limited number of effective plays here, plays that every coach and player in the league knows from start to finish. That's why teams will constantly change their repertoire of B.O.B. (Basket-Out-of-Bounds) plays.
How would you go about beating the Lakers? -- Darrell R. Marlowe, Maple Falls, Wash.
On offense, run a bunch of high screen/rolls involving a good shooting guard and whomever Shaq is guarding. Know that Shaq will never switch or even show on the shooting side of the screen. Should the Lakers cross-match and have someone else switch to the screener, run a second S/R against Shaq on the opposite side of the floor. A corollary to this would be to play a center who can shoot 3s -- like Sabonis or Raef LaFrentz.
On defense, overplay the strong-side wing -- this will bring Shaq to the high post as a release and enable him to throw backdoor passes. But it's better to have Shaq up there than in the paint -- and whoever's guarding the weak-side power forward can always sink and protect the baseline. This would leave either Samaki Walker or Robert Horry open for mid-range jumpers -- let them each take 50 of those.
Critics say that Phil Jackson is a sham, that he wins only because he has superior talent on his teams. Is he "the Man," or just a guy with the uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time all the time? -- Ray Martinez, Los Angeles
Here's PJ's secret -- he always keeps his players guessing. Sometimes he's a Deadhead, sometimes the man in the gray flannel suit. He can be funny, silly, literate, obscure or caustic. So his players are always forced to pay attention. And he also treats them with respect, even asking their opinions in huddles. "What's going on out there, guys?"
The triangle is nothing less than a way of thinking about the game of basketball -- as opposed to the standard playbook offense (a hodgepodge of unrelated sets and plays). This means that when things aren't working, Jackson can go back into the roots of the system until he finds the malfunction.
Yes, the Bulls had a rosterful of talented players. But for all his greatness, Michael Jordan was ringless for six years until Jackson took over the team. The same holds true for Shaq -- six years without a championship until Jackson came to town. Most teams have talent; the question is how to make all the talented pieces work together.
Remember the Lakers' title team of 2000? Shaq and Kobe plus who else? Glen Rice, a spectacularly unathletic shooter who couldn't guard a fire hydrant. Ron Harper, playing on a leg-and-a-half. Derek Fisher, who'd been a bust in his short tenure with LA. Rick Fox, at best a limited role player. Robert Horry, whom everybody said was soft and had lost his jumper somewhere along the way. A.C. Green, old, in the way, and the last virgin in the NBA. John Salley, who could barely remember where the basket was. Travis Knight, who couldn't score with a pencil. Brian Shaw, whom everybody had already given up for dead. Devean George, a rookie who couldn't tell day from night. And don't forget John Celestand. The point being that even Laker insiders estimated that this team had the least overall talent of any championship squad since the pre-Russellian twilight of the league.
Add it all up, and PJ is the real deal.
Given the fact that the All-Star game is a necessary evil, why not match international versus American-born players? Not only would the game be played with more intensity (which translates into defense), but this would also provide an interesting contrast in styles. Granted that the talents levels of the two proposed teams aren't quite equal, but in a few years such a game could be very competitive. -- Sam, Irvine, Calif.
A wonderful idea. Let's bombard David Stern with letters and e-mails.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."