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Friday, June 30, 2006

On Draft Night Every GM Gives Himself a Gold Star

by Roland Lazenby

Winners and losers in the NBA draft of 2006?

That’s supposed to be the assignment here. But it’s more a matter of gulpers and sippers.

This wasn’t so much a draft as it was a giant smoothie for the league’s executives.

Just dump all the draft picks and trades into the huge blender that was draft night and hit the HIGH button. Let it whir for a few hours, and like that, you have something that every general manager can digest, if not downright savor, and better yet, something they think they can sell to the fans.

Every general manager, that is, except Isiah Thomas of the New York Knicks. His selling days are mostly over. For the past two years, Thomas and Knicks/Madison Square Garden executive James Dolan have been acting as if they’re made men, as if they’re bullet proof, while throwing away tens of millions of dollars on one crazy decision after another.

Draft night may have been the final deed that gets them planted late some night in one of those deserted Jersey fields that the goombahs use for waste disposal.

Knicks fans are that frustrated.

You gotta give it to Zeke, though. If he’s gonna go down, it’s gonna be blazing, ghetto-style, doing it his way. So he takes the 20th overall pick and uses it to select Renaldo Balkman, that 6-5 forward out of South Carolina who is all raw passion with skills that make you grimace.

He’s an interesting pick, one that inspires some people to compare him to Dennis Rodman or Charles Barkley. Zeke’s gonna run and gun with his Knicks next season, and now he’s got a Rodman clone to introduce a little mayhem and a lot of energy into the proceedings each night.

“What? Is he nuts?” was the immediate chorus of ESPN broadcast analysts amidst the boos and hoots of the draft-night crowd at Madison Square Garden.

I have a little history with Zeke, so I’m not on that bandwagon just yet. Yes, he’s pulled some sneaky-stupid moves over the years. But he has always drafted well, he always pretty much knows what he wants, and Zeke can flat out lead a basketball team.

Yes, he may screw up a zillion things, but there’s a certain part of things he’s gotten straight over the years. His draft last year was primo with Channing Frye, David Lee and Nate Robinson.

Ditto for his days in Toronto with Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby. Isiah didn’t stay in Toronto very long, but the guys he picked proved themselves over the ensuing decade.

As a player, Zeke won two titles with Rodman, who hadn’t even played high school ball and couldn’t shoot a lick.
Thomas wants his team to get out and go next year. He’s got the talent to do that, and in Balkman he’s got a motor at the forward spot. Yes, he’s undersized, but a motor is a motor.

Then, just to throw fans another curve with the 29th pick, he added Mardy Collins, a big bulky, smart, skilled point guard who interned with John Chaney at Temple. Collins has got a big ole butt good for backing people down if the Knicks manage to slow it down long enough to run a half-court set or two.

Who’s to say the Knicks can’t play the way the Phoenix Suns do?

No, they don’t have Steve Nash, but their bloated payroll has purchased the talents of a lot of guys who can get out and go, unless Zeke happens to trade a few of them before the season starts.

I know Isiah has been acting like a pill lately, hiding from the New York media, etc., but I like the guy. I like his moxie. Always have. Hope he succeeds.

If he doesn’t, it’s still going to be among the most entertaining theater the NBA has to offer this upcoming season. There’s nothing quite like watching a train wreck.

Maybe Dolan and Isiah really are made men.

As for other screamers on draft night, ESPN’s Greg Anthony shook his head at the zany activity of the Portland Trail Blazers. There were trades that seemed to accomplish nothing, or worse yet, seemed to downgrade the roster.

The Blazers shipped a brilliant young talent like Sebastian Telfair (and a solid defender in Theo Ratliff plus a future second-round pick) to the Celtics for Raef LaFrentz (!), injured guard Dan Dickau, and the draft rights to Randy Foye (which they promptly spun off).

By the end of the night, though, Blazers executive Steve Patterson was smiling. He had acquired former University of Washington guard Brandon Roy and former University of Texas post LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Blazers also selected Joel Freeland (a project center from England) and James White (shooting guard from Cincinnati) with the 30th and 31st picks in 2006 NBA Draft. In addition to those picks the Blazers also acquired Sergio Rodriguez (PG from Spain) from Phoenix in exchange for cash.

They then traded James White to the Indiana Pacers for Alexander Johnson and second-round picks in 2007 and 2008.

Forgive their fans for being dazed and confused by all the moves. Yet it’s obvious more are to come for this bunch.

Patterson, though, sat back like a self-congratulatory Jerry Krause and pointed to all he had done. The young Blazers had gotten much younger and arguably more talented.

Will it all work out in the long run? Who knows, but at least the fans have something new to sip on.

Besides the Celtics and Blazers, who else came away with something good? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Here’s a list of candidates:

• Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats got the scorer they wanted in Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison.

• John Paxson and the Chicago Bulls loaded up while getting young and athletic by trading the second overall pick, Aldridge, to Portland for No. 4 pick Tyrus Thomas and forward Viktor Khryapa. Thomas was the SEC Freshman of the Year at LSU and averaged 12.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 3.1 bpg. The Bulls also acquired Swiss guard Thabo Sefolosha from Philadelphia for a future second-round pick, cash and Rodney Carney, who was taken with Chicago's 16th overall pick. Sefolosha averaged 12 ppg playing in Italy last season.

• Picking late, the Lakers still probably found a starter. They selected UCLA guard Jordan Farmar with the No. 26 overall pick in Wednesday's NBA Draft. The 6-foot-2 Farmar averaged 13.5 ppg and led the Pac-10 in assists with 5.1 as a sophomore. The Lakers also acquired guard Maurice Evans from the Pistons for Cheick Samb, their second-round pick.

• The Orlando Magic got just the shooter they needed to complement their core of young talent with Duke guard JJ Redick.

• Danny Ferry and the Cavaliers bolstered their backcourt by selecting Michigan State guard Shannon Brown at No. 25, Texas guard Daniel Gibson at No. 42 and Nigerian forward Ejike Ugboaja with the 55th pick.

• The Memphis Grizzlies and Jerry West, who always seem to come away with something on draft night, selected Kyle Lowry at 24th overall, then acquired draft rights to Alexander Johnson from Portland in exchange for a 2008 second-round draft pick.

And, oh, yeah, the Toronto Raptors, picking first, took Italian big man Andrea Bargnani, supposedly the hottest Euro of them all.

What does it all mean?

Well, each and every team website is hawking the news today. WE GOT THE GUYS WE WANTED. Right next to that is the season ticket form.

They’ve all had a great night. There’s new stuff to sell.

These guys will all be great, if Isiah and the other coaches around the league can get them to play hard and smart.

Here’s a fact to think about: Nearly a half of these kids who will get guaranteed salaries worth millions will be busts. Not worth a hoot. And NBA teams will lose tens of millions in wasted salaries for these players who don’t pan out.

Now you know why the NBA is so determined to push ahead with the Development League. It can buy an entire league of development players for $1 million, a mere fraction of what it costs for one first-rounder on draft night.

Go ahead, sip on that.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show: The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill

Monday, June 19, 2006

Get A T.O., Baby?

The National Basketball Association has long created a competitive format that allows coaches and their teams to chisel the clock at the end of games into tenths of seconds.
That's one of the big reasons the NBA likes to boast that its game is "fantastic."
That's how you feel if your team manages its timeouts well and wins the game.
If your timeouts don't go well, you feel just the opposite of fantastic, which is a few notches short of suicide.
If you don't believe that, just ask Isiah Thomas—or Mark Cuban.
The Isiah Thomas timeout fiasco during Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals (what is it about Game 5?) is part of NBA lore. With only ticks left on the clock, the Detroit Pistons had a one point lead in Boston Garden and faced inbounding the ball under their own basket.
An antsy Thomas signaled to official Jess Kersey that he wanted the ball to throw it in.
"Don't you want a timeout?" Kersey asked.
"Gimme the f**kin' ball," Thomas demanded.
Kersey gave him the ball, and Thomas made the inbounds pass that was famously stolen by Larry Bird, who then famously whipped it to teammate Dennis Johnson, who then famously scored a layup to give the Celtics a one-point lead with only a second or two to go.
The crowd went nuts. Boston Garden may have never been louder.
With the ball in his hands, Kersey then walked up a crestfallen Thomas and asked, "NOW do you want a timeout?"
Mark Cuban, of course, is the Mr. Moneybags Owner who has revived the Dallas Mavericks franchise. A former fan, Cuban likes to sit right behind his team during games and fuss about the refs. Cuban even jumps into huddles during timeouts to hear coach Avery Johnson's latest strategy and check on his team.
The only NBA owner who has ever been closer to his team during games was the late Les Harrison of the Rochester Royals. The only way that the irascible Harrison was closer was that he actually coached the team. Harrison, too, was the kind of guy who couldn't help but get into it with the refs.
And like Cuban, Harrison was not above using strange tactics to improve his team's fortunes. When the Royals struggled during the 1951 season, Harrison told me he took the team to a roadhouse and paid for his players to get uproariously drunk. He figured that would help them exorcise the demons and start playing the right way. Sure enough, the Royals made it all the way to the league chapionship series that year (George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers was injured) and actually won the thing despite Harrison's fussing with the officials.
Well, I don't believe Mark Cuban has taken his team out and gotten the guys drunk this season, but the Dallas owner is well known for bestowing every sort of gift and amenity on his players. Maybe that's why they don't complain when he pokes his nose in the huddle.
However, never mind his success in reversing the Mavs' fortunes. A lot of people in the NBA don't like Mark Cuban. They don't like the bully pulpit of his blog and the tactics he uses to try to influence officiating. Mark Cuban is the ultimate super fan, with a billion dollars or two in his pocket and a love for the sound of his own voice. Does NBA Commissioner David Stern dislike Cuban? He says not, although in the past he has levied huge fines on the owner for complaining about referees and officiating and other things about the NBA.
Do the officials dislike Cuban? Well, nobody's ever done a poll of the guys in the gray shirts, but at times like this you have to wonder.
After he made a hard foul on Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA decided to suspend Mavs' star sixth man Jerry Stackhouse for Game 5, leading to furious protests from both Avery Johnson and Cuban.
In the stands for the pivotal game in this Finals series was Cuban, wearing a Stackhouse jersey, and seemingly fussing about every single call the officials made.
The game, just like Game 3 in this classic series, came down to a "fantastic" finish.
The Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki scored with 9.1 seconds in overtime to give Dallas a 100-99 lead. Then Miami's Dwyane Wade went to work, as he has all series. He was fouled (Cuban complained bitterly that he was not fouled, that he actually committed a backcourt violation before the final sequence) and went to the line to make both free throws with 1.9 seconds to go.
The standard play in pro basketball is for the team that is behind to take a timeout so that it can advance the ball to halfcourt, which allows for one final good shot if execution goes well.
However, official Joe DeRosa signaled the final Dallas timeout after the first free throw, which meant that the Mavericks would not be able to advance the ball to halfcourt, which in turn meant that they wouldn't get a last good shot. The timeout ignited a furious protest from the Mavs' bench, to no avail.
In fact, Cuban's team lost on a long heave by Devin Harris as time expired. Now, after having led the series two games to none, the Mavericks trail the Miami Heat, three games to two.
Immediately after that last heave came more loud protest from the Dallas bench. This timeout was a routine thing that officials negotiate hundreds, maybe thousands, of times during an NBA season, Johnson argued. Just as Kersey questioned Isiah's move in 1987, NBA officials have long consulted with players on game situations. As Johnson protested, this is a routine thing for officials.
But Joey Crawford, the crew chief for the officials, said that when young Maverick Josh Howard requested the timeout for the second time, DeRosa had no choice but to call the timeout.
Mavericks fans, and some observers, said it seemed like a very strange time for the officials suddenly to enforce the letter of the law after not having done so for years.
Johnson said his anger was also based on the fact that he believed Wade was not fouled by Nowitzki on the final drive. Johnson told reporters he signaled to Josh Howard to call a timeout after Wade’s second free throw.
“Pretty much most people who have ever been involved in the N.B.A. for 20, 30 years, we know we wouldn’t want one anyway,” Johnson said.
The referee crew chief, Crawford, said in a statement to a pool reporter: “Josh Howard goes to Joe DeRosa and not only once, but twice asks for a timeout. Forced to call it, simple as that.”
When time expired, Cuban ran onto the court and screamed at DeRosa. Next the Dallas owner went to the scorer's table and gave Stern a long, icy stare that said, "You guys just stole this." Cuban followed that up with more screaming and black looks as Stern and other league officials made their way out of the arena.
Boy, somebody better get a T.O. What kind of scenario does this set up for Game 6 back in Dallas? You have to wonder if Mark Cuban has ever considered being less of a spectacle, less of a lightning rod for the league's refs and officials.
Maybe he did get robbed. But now is probably the time where he goes to the Les Harrison playbook for super involved owners. Maybe he needs to take all his players to a roadhouse somewhere deep in the heart of Texas so they all can have a cold one and chill out a bit before Game 6.
Then again, maybe it's too late. Maybe Mark Cuban, for all the good he has done, has become his team's worst enemy.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill on audiotape, and as a book. He has also written The NBA Finals, A 50 Year Celebration, among his other sports books.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


They've been in the pro championship series 29 times over the years (if you include the old National League). And in 2006 the Lakers again take a commanding presence in the NBA's showcase event.
They're just not wearing the purple (Forum blue) and gold.
There's Shaquille O'Neal, MVP of three Laker championships, discarded by team owner Jerry Buss.
There's Pat Riley, the coach who directed the Lakers to four NBA titles and three other appearances in the championship series. Also discarded by Buss. In fact, that's a substantial part of the bond between Riley and his center, their ex-Buss employee status. Now they both work for the Miami Heat.
There's Del Harris, former Laker coach, now the primo assistant in Dallas, and, yes, you get the picture, also a former Buss employee. Harris says that Buss panicked in the late '90s, traded away Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones and broke up a team that was about to win a whole lot of championships. The reason? Buss didn't want to pay Campbell big money as a backup center, and he didn't want to give Jones a big pay raise.
Of course, it's hard to argue with what Buss did after he let Harris go (without health insurance, Harris says). He hired Phil Jackson and watched his Lakers win three straight titles.
Wait! There's more.
There's Gary Payton, who spent a year with the Lakers, struggling in Jackson's triangle offense, before seeing the team lose 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 championship series. He's now a Miami reserve and apparently reasonably contented.
And there's Bob McAdoo, the former league MVP who came to Los Angeles and agreed to come off the bench as one of the best sixth men in league history. Now he's a dutiful assistant to his old Laker boss Riley.
If Shaq ever should want a tip, or just a bit of consolation, he's got McAdoo. It's rare to get advice like that, Shaq told me after he had spent some time in Miami.
When I asked him about coaching Shaq, McAdoo just smiled. O'Neal is not known for accepting a lot of advice, unless it's packaged with sweet nothings.
Yes, Laker fans, you have some old sweethearts in the championship series, so it's not like there's no rooting interest with the Heat and Mavericks squaring off as two first-time championship contenders.
In fact, you face some tough questions:
Root for Shaq, who would love to show Buss up?
Some would rather drink cockroach piss.
But think about it. He's a good guy, his conflict with Kobe aside (and now supposedly buried). He's a funny guy. And without him, there would not be those three championship banners, there would be no Laker revival.
Instead, Laker fans would have spent life in recent seasons much like Boston Celtics fans. Wondering when the drought would end and trying to hold onto graying memories.
Instead, Laker pride is high these days. As are hopes. The team last won a championship in 2002. It's a recent memory.
For that, you have big ole Shaq to thank.
So let bygones be bygones and let out a rip for the big fella.
After all, one of these days in the not too distant future, you're gonna be retiring his number to hang high in Staples.
He may have changed uniforms, but when everything is said and done, he's still your guy.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released on DVD by McGraw-Hill. Booklist said The Show "is the best book about the NBA since The Jordan Rules."

Story from Christian Science Monitor

How pro basketball got its groove back
By Daniel B. Wood | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
LOS ANGELES – The NBA is back.
In recent years, soporific play made fans more likely to watch infomercials than basketball playoff games. But a new generation of classy superstars - and a revival of inspired team play - has the game on the rebound.

And the buzz over Thursday's opening game of the NBA finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat is proof positive that basketball has a future in the post-Michael Jordan era.

"There is the opportunity this year that the NBA could recapture some of the global imagination it hasn't seen since the years of Michael Jordan," says Roland Lazenby, who has written several books on the league, including "The NBA Finals."

This season's attendance levels were the highest in league history, and TV ratings for the playoffs - which have featured nine overtime games so far - are up 20 percent over last year. It's no mystery why.

Younger players, led by stars of the 2003 draft such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade have captured the spotlight as charismatic athletes who excel as role models both on and off the court. The game itself, meanwhile, has restored the competitive artistry it lost when one-on-one play became the norm. Remember the 2004 Olympics, when the US hoops squad loaded with talent - and egos - got pummeled by foreign teams with balanced scoring?

"For a long time there has been the image of professional basketball stars, rooted somewhat in truth, as just a bunch of people cashing big checks they hadn't earned," says Mr. Lazenby. "Now we seem to have a younger generation of players that really cares. They are more mature, they are dedicated, and they care very much how they are viewed."

Exhibit "A," he and others say, is Miami's 6'4" Dwyane Wade - just three years into the league - who plays with the poise of many veterans. Turning on a dime, exploding high in the air, smoothly eluding the reach of taller defenders, Wade has the precocious flash and panache of a future Hall of Famer but none of the swagger of more egotistic players.

Exhibit "B" is Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki, a 7-footer who plays with such grace and élan that he could be mistaken for an agile point guard. Mild-mannered, and soft-spoken, Nowitzki displays a quiet confidence that draws teammates to his leadership. Where other stars have fostered division through bluster, Nowitzki has promoted unity through character.

Exhibit "C" is improving team play.

"I think this is a really important time in basketball history. We are starting to see the appreciation for the multiskilled player like the early days of Bob Cousy or the [Larry] Bird/Magic [Johnson] years of the [19]80s," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. "We are moving back to what the game is supposed to be about ... making teammates better, playing both ends of the court, creating opportunities to score, passing, rebounding, doing it all. The pendulum is swinging back."

The contest between the Heat and the Mavericks - two younger franchises both in the finals for the first time - reflects a growing economic parity in the NBA.

The diffusion of talent throughout the league helped create playoffs this year full of younger, up-and-coming teams playing nail-biting games, many ending in buzzer-beating plays.

The fast pace of play and appealing players on the Mavericks and Heat should sustain that playoff buzz well into Finals. "This is a great chance to see a contrasting battle of newer NBA styles with a new cast of players," says Stan McNeal, managing editor of Sporting News. But the championship also features as many storylines as an episode of "Lost."

"There are a host of really interesting subplots this year that are building all kinds of interest," says Adam Zimmerman, a senior vice president at Career Sports & Entertainment, a sports marketing agency based in Atlanta.

Some say that the Wade vs. Nowitzki matchup features two of the NBA's best players in a competition for who shines most under pressure. Some see Wade as the next Michael Jordan; others see Nowitzki as redefining the future of the power-forward/center position.

But a second subplot concerns Miami's aging superstar center, 7'1" Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal has won three championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers and is playing in his sixth finals. He is an old-style, inside center: Get the ball near the basket, back into the defense, turn, and stuff the ball. Fans wonder if he can win a championship without his old teammate, Kobe Bryant.

A third subplot is that of Miami's veteran coach, Pat Riley, who won four titles as coach of the Lakers in the 1980s, vs. newcomer Avery Johnson of Dallas, who won coach-of-the year overwhelmingly in his first full season with the Mavs.

"This is a tough one," says Andrew Feinstein, a veteran NBA-watcher who also syndicates a comic strip called "Girls and Sports." "You want to root for Riley to come back for another title, but Avery Johnson is universally considered the best guy in the NBA period."

Though he can be explosively tough on players, Johnson is popular among his team and fans alike. Despite being just 5'11", he became a longtime NBA player who scored the winning shot in the 1999 Finals. He earned further goodwill recently when he hired his high school coach as a Mavs assistant after the school was destroyed by hurricane Katrina.