Weekly Countdown (cont.)
Now, on to the rest of the Countdown ...
4 questions rescued from the spam
Can a team have too much talent? I ask about the Blazers, who are off to a bit of a stumbling start. At a certain point, do the players' desire for minutes trump the "good of the team?"
A team can have too much talent if the pieces don't fit together. When I'm doing the interviews for our annual preseason breakdown of all 30 teams, the NBA scouts spend a lot of time analyzing which players need the ball in their hands to be successful, as opposed to teammates who can play without the ball as spot-up shooters and the like. The Blazers need to figure out how Brandon Roy and newcomer Andre Miller can excel on the floor together, because each needs the ball to play at his best.
But I wouldn't read too much into the Blazers' so-so start because it's such a long season: By the time we're into February and March it's hard to remember anything that happened in November.
Along these lines, coach Nate McMillan has done very well to develop a winning program while his key young players -- Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in particular -- have been pursuing long-term contracts. It's not as easy as the Blazers have made it look to put winning first while simultaneously enabling young players to max-out individually.
How much of this talk about impending free agency will affect the teams with those stars? Can Cleveland really focus on the Finals when they're not sure if the franchise will be in shambles next year?
I don't see it as destabilizing. Just the opposite: Every team in the league is used to dealing with the "distraction" of impending free agency. The threat of leaving is a hammer used by the big stars to convince their owners to build a winning roster sooner than later. Everyone accepts free agency as a necessary part of the business, and without it there would be less incentive for teams to pursue a championship.
Before the season, there seemed to be concerns that a few teams might be in more financial trouble than others. Do you foresee any clubs relocating soon? If so, what city tops the list of contenders?
Until the Kings work out a deal for a new arena in Sacramento, there will be rumors of their departure to cities like Anaheim or Las Vegas. But there aren't a lot of promising markets open for NBA franchises. Instead of looking for new homes, the owners are waiting for the arrival of a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011-12 to rescue them. They'll be seeking a larger share of the revenue as well as shorter contracts and other concessions from the players, which is leading to anticipation of a lockout that season. Negotiating a new CBA is the priority for owners.
What do the Suns have in the water in Phoenix that allows so many older players to thrive with nary an injury? Are their trainers that much more advanced? Is the Suns' start for real or will Father Time catch up?
The Suns benefit from a system known as Optimum Performance Training, designed by Suns physical therapist Dr. Michael Clark and applied by Aaron Harris, the team's athletic trainer. Their system is based on a scientific understanding of how different parts of the body help or hinder each other. If a player's knee is bothering him, the Suns' staff may focus on treating weaknesses or imbalances elsewhere in the body that are destabilizing the knee. I wrote about this a couple of years ago when Amar'e Stoudemire was rehabbing from microfracture knee surgery.
Steve Nash is a big believer in the Suns' approach and follows the regimen religiously, which helps explain why he has never missed more than eight games in a season while averaging 34.6 minutes since coming to Phoenix in 2004. Grant Hill played 82 games at age 36 last season, while Shaquille O'Neal played 75 games (a nine-year high for him) as he recovered his form to lead the league in field-goal percentage. The Suns provided Shaq with an exercise program to rebuild the small muscles in his rear end, which enabled him to regain some of his old athleticism around the basket. So convinced was Shaq by these results that he told me last summer he would bring a training associate with him to Cleveland who is adept in the Suns' methods.
This is not to say that there aren't other means of athletic training that can be just as effective as O.P.T. There is room for a lot of different perspectives when it comes to fitness and rehab. But there can be no arguing with the results the Suns are enjoying.
How far can they go? They're a thin team, especially up front, so while their perimeter stars and their renewed up-tempo style should carry them into the playoffs, they probably won't be able to earn homecourt advantage or reach the second round. Everything will depend on keeping Nash and Hill healthy, because they are the glue on that team.
3 answers from Dwyane Wade
How have you improved since leading Miami to the championship in 2005-06?
"I'm so much better, and maybe it is because I took the challenge of being a better defender. Offensively, I've been gifted all my life to be able to score points and to be able to make things happen. But I haven't taken the challenge of being the best defender, even though I've always had the tools. Now I['m taking] the challenge of being a good defender, of making sure my team knows exactly where to be on the court, of being a better leader. At 24 I was just playing basketball; I had a lot of veteran guys on my team that did a lot of the talking, that did all of that work, and I just played ball. Now I've got to do the talking, I've got to play ball, I've got to make sure guys are in their positions, I've got to be the example. It's harder, but it makes it more gratifying."
Why did you complain publicly this summer when the Heat failed to make a major upgrade in talent?
"It's going to be criticized every time you step out and say something; and if you don't say something you're going to be criticized for it. As a leader your teammates look to you every day to step up and say something. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. Like I was telling my teammates at the beginning of the season, me talking this summer was about me making sure that we continue to get better. That our growth is not stunted. And that's not to say that I don't believe in anyone in this locker room; that's just saying that every year you want to add the right pieces to some of the things you have.
"I'm not going back and forth during the season, because I think we've got a pretty good team. But I want to make sure as I'm in my prime that we're adding. And I believe that (team president and former) coach [Pat] Riley and (owner) Micky Arison, they're winners, they want to be winners and the love the feeling of being winners. So my job was just saying it. If I don't say it, who will? That's the way I have to approach it."
Is there such a thing as a moral victory when you're rebuilding your team?
"Oh, for sure. They say in sports we don't want to take a moral victory. But sometimes you've got to take positive things from a loss. You take the good things and try to incorporate that into the rest of your game. Everybody takes moral victories from a loss, no matter if they want to say it or not. Because you've always got to look at things positive."
2 things you hear over a cup of coffee
A Western scout on the Rockets' success -- they've beaten Portland and Utah and lost in OT to the Lakers -- without Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest:
"The thing that's amazing is they don't have any inside force, and it's not like they're super quick where they can run you. One thing Rick Adelman has usually done is to stick with a rotation of eight or nine guys, even if they're in shooting slumps. So if you're one of those guys and you know he's going to stick with you even if your shots aren't falling, you're not going to stress over getting your numbers or getting your touches before you get yanked out of the game -- because he isn't going to yank you for that. So there isn't that kind of tension for each player 'to get mine' at the expense of the team.
"Some of the guys they have were there when they made their run two years ago, so they know they can do it. I think they can play this way all year."
Celtics president Danny Ainge on how he decided to recruit Rasheed Wallace last summer:
"Then I talk with people I know around the league, whether it's media people who have been around an organization, or players that I'm familiar with that played with him. And the amazing thing is everybody has differing views of a guy like Rasheed. Most people like Rasheed and yet he's an enigma. He's not the easiest guy to coach, and yet he can be a coach's greatest asset at the same time. More than whether we want him or don't want him, the research we do and the conversations that we have is so that you know what you're getting. So obviously we're not going to be shocked when Rasheed gets a technical foul, because we know Rasheed is a very emotional player. We have some emotional players on our team, and that can be a blessing and sometimes that's a curse. K.G. is very emotional, Perk (Kendrick Perkins) is very emotional, Rasheed's very emotional. We have seen how intense all three of these guys can be and what their desire is to win, and I'd much rather take players with emotion than players without emotion and trying to light a fire in them.''
1 thought out of left field
During a recent visit to Indiana I asked Larry Bird -- a big baseball fan -- what he thought about the controversial umpiring during the baseball playoffs.
I mentioned to Bird that the problems in baseball gave me new perspective on the difficulties facing refs in the NBA. "I know our league has got the best officials in the world," said Bird. "I think overall they do a tremendous job. There are different ways that different officials officiate, but we should be very honored we do have the best."
I'm not certain that the NBA has the best officials of any sport -- who knows? -- but I do believe they have the most difficult job among the officials in the major team sports. Every time I saw an umpire fail to notice whether a baserunner was standing a step away from third base when he was tagged out, or fail to see a batted ball bouncing on the wrong side of the foul line, I was reminded how much more difficult the job is for an NBA referee to be sprinting back and forth without being able to anticipate where the play may ensue.
While umpires are charged with a lot of black-or-white decisions -- either the ball was fair or foul, either the throw beat the runner or it didn't -- NBA referees are faced with a number of subjective decisions. "It's tough," agreed Bird of the burdens on NBA refs. "If you really went by the rules, you could call something every time."
NBA director of officials Bernie Fryer insists that there should be few subjective calls during NBA games. Even when an explosive athlete collides out of nowhere with a defender who is trying to draw the charge, Fryer believes there should absolutely be a right call and a wrong call with no gray area in between. But the speed and unpredictability of the game makes it difficult to separate point-of-view from fact.
Bird felt sympathy for umpires working behind the plate. Whenever a pitch was borderline, the TV networks would impose a virtual strike zone to show whether it should have been called a strike or a ball. "I don't know if that box is 100 percent accurate," said Bird. "I think it really hurts baseball when they put the [virtual] strike zone in there. If you're going to do that, why have an umpire behind the plate?"
Speaking as a fan, Bird also wondered if baseball should introduce instant replay to verify calls such as the inning-ending double play in Game 2 of the World Series in which Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard was credited with catching a line drive off the bat of Johnny Damon. Zoomed-in replays showed that the ball in fact skipped off the infield dirt into Howard's glove, but it would have been very difficult for an umpire to recognize that. "You get somebody in the booth to see that," said Bird. "You don't need a minute. You could see that within 5 seconds."
As much as the problems in baseball may create sympathy for the difficulties of refereeing in the NBA, I pointed out to Bird that he'd be likely to forget that perspective many nights this season when he is frustrated by the decisions that hurt his Pacers.
"That's human nature, you pull for your own team, you want them to do well," he said with a shrug. "It's normal."
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