Tag Archives: Larry Bird

Trying to Forge an Identity in Indiana

In recent years, the Indiana Pacers have had a strong, recognizable identity. With players like David West and Roy Hibbert in the starting lineup, the Pacers ran a deliberate offense built around set plays. Defensively, they played aggressive, effective team defense and had the benefit of stellar rim protection from Hibbert.

Once David West opted out of his contract and decided to sign with San Antonio, Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird decided the team should go to a more uptempo style. He proceeded to trade Hibbert and make numerous other tweaks to the roster to suit the style he wanted the team to play.

The plan hit a snag early on, when Paul George balked at playing “small ball” because it could mean he’d be spending significant time at the power forward position. Despite this, Bird and head coach Frank Vogel went ahead with the plan.

Initially, the Pacers really took to the new style, getting off to a fast start as the season began. Over time, however, the Pacers have slowly shifted back toward a bigger, more traditional lineup. One of the reasons for this has been the emergence of rookie center Myles Turner. Turner can run the floor and shoot well from the outside, allowing the Pacers to space the floor and play more uptempo, but still have plenty of size in the lineup.

As long as Turner is starting and playing well, Indiana has the best of both worlds when it comes to meshing their old and new styles. The problem here is that the Pacers are caught in the middle – Bird maintains his interest in playing faster and smaller, while Vogel is more comfortable with a bigger lineup, although he does use a smaller lineup from time to time.

Flexibility is a good thing, but only up to a point. The Pacers don’t have an identity right now…no one from the outside really knows what they are, and those within the organization are just as unsure about what kind of team this is or what direction they are taking.

Another consequence that has come from the attempted style change is that the Pacers’ defense has become very inconsistent. At times, their defense has been among the best in the NBA, but other times, their defense has been very porous.

The team is now in a position of having no direction or identity on either end of the floor. On top of that, the individual roles of the players are in flux as well.

In the early part of the year, Paul George was the team’s go-to guy in late-game situations. He wasn’t coming through, and the Pacers were losing nearly all the close games they were involved in. Of late, Monta Ellis has been moved into the “closer” role, but the results haven’t been much better.

So, the team is grasping at straws trying to find a guy who can hit big shots in crunch time…and that situation also creates uncertainty in terms of leadership among the players. NBA teams tend to function best when they have a go-to guy and/or established leader, and Indiana has neither at this point in the season.

Despite all this uncertainty, Indiana is still having a better year than they did in 2014-15. The team shows a lot of promise, but their performances have been up-and-down and they’re hovering just above the .500 mark as a result.

In order to get the most out of this roster, Bird and Vogel need to settle on a rotation and offensive style of play. The inconsistency in the style of play and inconsistent results go hand-in-hand…and establishing an offensive identity will help the defense perform more reliably as well.

Leadership is a more organic parameter, but generally, your best player needs to be your strongest leader. Paul George is still evolving in that role, and has struggled at times to carry the burden of leadership. This element is a shared responsibility among Indiana’s players right now, and the Pacers won’t reach their potential until that area is solidified.

Going into this season, everyone knew this team would be a work in progress. Now that we are about 50 games in, however, the issues they need to work on and resolve have been identified. If the Pacers can make further progress in these areas by April, they’ll be a tough out when playoff time rolls around.

How Far Have Paul George and the Pacers Come?

The Indiana Pacers’ 2014-15 season got off to a horrendous start long before a regular season game was ever played. All-Star forward Paul George broke his leg while practicing with Team USA that August, and knowing he would likely be out for the year, the hopes of challenging for an Eastern Conference Championship seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye.

Indiana held it together as best they could, but without a force like George and the impact he makes on both ends of the court, the Pacers finished the year 38-44 and missed the playoffs.

During the offseason, power forward David West decided to opt out of his contract to sign with a team he felt had a chance to compete for a championship (San Antonio). Once West was gone, President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird decided that the team should go to a more uptempo offensive attack. Roster moves were made to accommodate this change in philosophy: slow-footed center Roy Hibbert was dealt, and fleet guard Monta Ellis was signed. Other role players were added to the roster that fit Bird’s vision of how he wanted his team to play.

As the 2015-16 season approached, no one knew how long it would take for the Pacers to adapt to this new style, assuming they ever did. And with Paul George coming back, would he ever be the player he was before the injury? 28 games into the season, we now have answers to these key questions.

Indiana got off to a slow start, losing their first three games. Even so, there were signs that playing at a faster pace had promise. The offensive execution came along more quickly than expected, but the vital element was finding a way to play sound defense while “running and gunning” on the offensive end.

The Pacers had been known as one of the best defensive teams in the NBA in recent seasons, and they needed to balance that with an increased emphasis on scoring. Things started coming together a few games into the season, and the results have shown up in the win column.

Even on the heels of a three-game losing streak, Indiana stands at 16-12, good for 7th in the Eastern Conference. Many pundits saw this as a rebuilding year for the Pacers, and the expectations were frankly pretty low. However, the coaching staff and players have really embraced the new style of play, and it’s been effective thus far.

So, just how much progress has the Blue and Gold made since last season? The improvement has been significant, but this team is not ready to contend in the East. There is still too much inconsistency on the defensive end – when the Pacers are on point defensively, they are very good. When they have lapses in concentration and allow other teams to score too easily, they’re average at best. They’ve found a winning formula, but keeping it up game by game is a work in progress.

The Indiana Pacers have made great strides and show potential to be a threat down the road, but what about the face of the franchise, Paul George?

George was an All-Star and seemed on the cusp of even bigger things when he went down with that gruesome injury in the summer of 2014. George’s comeback has been even more dramatic than the improvement of the team…he’s not only back, he’s better than ever. He is still playing defense at an elite level, but his impact on the offensive end has actually increased since his return.

George is averaging career-highs in points (25.0) and rebounds (7.9) per game, and his assist totals (4.1 per contest) are as high as they’ve ever been as well. This would qualify as a step forward and a “career year” under normal circumstances, but for this level of performance to come after a serious injury like the one he suffered? This is the stuff inspirational Hollywood films are made of, almost too good to be true.

The Pacers aren’t quite at an elite level as a team, but their star player seems to have reached that height individually. Paul George’s reemergence this season has been extremely important to the fortunes of the Indiana Pacers not only in the present, but in their hopes for the future as well.

It should be a fun and interesting ride over the next few months…stay tuned.

Indiana Pacers: A State of Flux

A lot has changed since the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers ended their season just short of a playoff berth last spring. Gone are veteran power forward David West and defensive-minded center Roy Hibbert. The style of play has also changed, going from a deliberate pace to a more uptempo approach. The other thing that has changed? The team is winning.

Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird was planning to make at least one more run with the core group he had after the 2014-15 season. However, David West chose to opt out of his contract to sign with the San Antonio Spurs (at a greatly reduced salary). Once this domino fell, Bird decided to reshape the team in order to play the uptempo style that he prefers.

In order for the Pacers to play at a faster pace, plodding center Roy Hibbert had to go. He was given, er, traded to the Lakers during the offseason. Now, some players needed to be added that would fit the uptempo game. The most significant of these additions was Monta Ellis, a 6-3 combo guard who is an accomplished scorer and underrated passer. A younger, more athletic center was brought on board when Bird drafted 6-11 Myles Turner out of the University of Texas. There were several other minor player additions made, all with an eye toward playing at a faster tempo.

The big question now would be: after missing nearly the entire season recovering from a gruesome leg injury, what would the Pacers get out of All-Star Paul George?

George was a bright, up-and-coming talent who had already achieved All-Star status after being drafted by Larry Bird in 2010. While practicing with Team USA on August 1, 2014, George suffered a severe leg fracture, causing him to miss all but the last six games of the regular season. After a lengthy rehab process, would Paul George ever be the player he once was?

We now have the answer to this, and it’s an emphatic no. Paul George is not the player he once was, but incredibly, he’s better. So far this season, George has averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and four assists per game. He’s also shooting an impressive 45% from 3-point range. Add to that the stellar defense he plays every night, and it would be fair to say that George has come back with a vengeance.

There was talk before the season started that George would be moved to power forward in this new uptempo scheme, but that hasn’t been an issue for him or for the team. While George is spending some time at the ‘4,’ it’s not dramatically changing the way he plays…he’s still showing the all-around game that he’s always had, but he’s doing it even better in this system.

pg and cj miles

A guy who deserves a lot of credit for Paul George’s performance so far this year is C.J. Miles. Why? Because C.J. has been willing to take on the daunting task of defending the opposing team’s power forward when that player has superior size and has a post game. Miles is three inches shorter than George, but he’s battling with those big men for the good of the team, and so far, it’s working.

It’s usually difficult for a team to find any success with multiple new players and a new offensive system, but after a slow start, Indiana is really taking to the uptempo approach. It’s a fun system to play in, and the Pacers have a roster stocked with guys who are well-suited for a faster style of play. As much as their offense has improved, their strong defense from last season hasn’t fallen off very much, and that’s a real key to why this new philosophy has been successful.

And, the most important piece to this puzzle has to be Paul George coming back and playing at a superstar level after suffering such a devastating injury. Pacer Nation would have been thrilled if George had just returned to his prior All-Star form, but he’s a better and more dominant player now than he ever was before.

Indiana found out this past Tuesday night just how far they have to go to get to an elite level, however, falling at home 131-123 to the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. The Pacers are now playing a similar style to that of the Warriors, but the Warriors do it better than anyone. The Indiana Pacers are clearly on their way up, but they haven’t reached the top of the mountain yet.

The Pacers have been one of the surprise teams of the league thus far, and the future looks bright as well. They should continue to get better at executing this offense as the season unfolds. The main concern, other than significant injuries, would be maintaining their defensive focus in such an offensive-oriented system. If they can do that, Indiana will be a tough “out” for anyone they play once the playoffs begin.

The 1,000 Point Club Welcomes West Virginia’s Juwan Staten

Being able to break the 1,000 point threshold in a college basketball career is quite an achievement, especially at a Division 1 level. For those of you that are part of the 1,000 point club, you are something special.

This past Saturday, Juwan Staten of the West Virginia Mountaineers  joined an elite club as he scored his 1,000 career point in a win over the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Madison Square Garden in the Gotham Classic 83-69.

Staten was quite a standout basketball player coming out of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, who is well known to produce great basketball players. He also helped them claim the best ranking in the state with an undefeated home record. During his junior year, he also represented Thurgood Marshall High School, who he also helped them lead to a great state championship run. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, he was heavily recruited by Division 1 schools such as Xavier, Dayton, Purdue and Cincinnati.

After being heavily recruited by Dayton, he would go on to start for them and become known as the best passer and lead the conference with the most assist. He would lead the Flyers to a winning record and reached the finals in the Atlantic-10 championship tournament. With three years of eligibility left, he would go on and transfer to WVU.

Due to transfer rules, Staten had to sit out the 2010-2011 season under head coach Bob Huggins. But in his first eligible season, it was his least best season when, again, he became as the best passer on the team. His only real notable stat of that season was win he hit a game winning shot with 5 seconds left to beat the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Staten’s junior year was the year that got him heavily recognized throughout the country and drew him much media attention from everywhere you could possibly think of. He also proved to be an excellent rebounder considering he is listed as a “point guard”. Given his size at 6’1, he can pretty much do anything on the basketball court. Consider him a utility athlete.  The Ohio native earned prestigious conference honors with West Virginia, such as the Big 12 First Team and the Big 12 All-Defensive Team in 2014.  At the conclusion of the year, Staten averaged 18.1 points, 5.9 assists, and 5.6 rebounds, making him one of the nation’s top point guards statistically.

“You’re talking about a 6-foot point guard and he’s one of the top 15 rebounders in the league. What more do you want him to do?” ~ Coach Bob Huggins says of Juwan Staten.

Standing just over six feet, Juwan Staten is regarded as one of the greatest rebounders in college when taking into consideration the size. Staten has made his mark as one of the country’s top defenders while also posing tremendous danger offensively through his third season playing college basketball. Juwan Staten is capable of knocking down the jump shot at a staggering rate according to collegiate standards, but has lacked accuracy on free throws throughout his playing career.

Congratulations, Juwan Staten. You have joined one of the elite groups in college basketball. You  Not many can say they have joined that group in college basketball except the greats like Pete Maravich, Oscar Robertson, Doug McDermott, Larry Bird, David Robertson, Jerry West, the list goes on and on. That’s pretty good company to have. Big ups to you, big guy. Keep up the good work!

NBA Basketball, Where Amazing Doesn't Happen

When I was a kid, the NBA was all about rivalries. For many years the Lakers and Celtics, Pistons and Bulls, 76ers and Celtics or even Bulls and Knicks fought tooth and nail to see which team was the best in the league. Today, the landscape of the league has dramatically changed into what players are going to join together to form a super team and dominate everyone else.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Lakers, Celtics, and 76ers, along with the Bulls, Pistons, and Knicks of the late 80’s to mid 90’s were the epitome of team. While they all had their superstars, including Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Larry Bird, Dr J, and Patrick Ewing, the team was paramount. Those players all stayed with their teams for most, if not their entire, career. Today that is almost unfathomable. Looking back to the 2003 NBA draft, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were all drafted. Only Wade is still with his original team. In the summer of 2010, Bosh and James took their talents to join Wade and form their version of an AAU team, which is now looking to three-peat this coming June. While that’s all well and good, does anyone really expect this trio to stay together beyond this season? Certainly not me, as all three players have opt out clauses and will be looking to cash in on their next big pay day. Meanwhile in New York, Carmelo Anthony will be looking to opt out of his contract to cash in. At least the “Big Three” in Miami can say they’ve won two championships, while Carmelo looks to pad his stats, as evidenced by his recent 62 point scoring effort. Will Carmelo stay in NY and maximize his next pay day? Or will he maneuver his way to LA and join Kobe Bryant in an effort to win something other than a scoring title? Only time will tell.

Going back to those great teams of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, could you imagine if Magic Johnson had left the Lakers and Larry Bird the Celtics to join Michael Jordan’s Bulls? That team would have been like the original Dream Team, throttling everyone in the league. That powerhouse never happened because those players were dedicated to their teams, embraced the team rivalries, and were driven to defeat their opponents. They would have just assumed punch each other in the mouth, as opposed to joining together for a barnstorming tour of the NBA.

This isn’t meant to knock the players of today. It just shows how the new mentality of the “superstars” of the league dismiss team rivalries and the value of playing for one team. In other words, if they can’t beat their rivals they’ll just join them. Problem solved. This lack of competitive drive is one of the reasons the NBA’s popularity has waned in recent years and why so many fans now have favorite players instead of favorite teams.

What does this mean for the future of the NBA? More than likely you’ll see players spend five to seven years with the team that drafted them, three to five years with their next team, and then finish their careers with a third, or even fourth, team. Gone are the days that your favorite player spends his entire career with his original team. While this may frustrate fans that have to root for a different team every few years, the real loser is the league. The NBA’s popularity exploded during the 80’s and 90’s due to those intense rivalries. Now, the league is relegated to a super team that is the flavor of the year and their victims. While this may please some fans, those that remembers the historic rivalries will be changing the channel. In the end, the players get their cash and glory while the fans are stuck figuring out which team to root against.

NBA Draft 2014: Boston Celtics Mock v1

I had 3 ideas to write about this morning:

  1. My horrible fantasy loss in the Final 4 of the Totally Unlegit Fantasy Football League
  2. Terrell Suggs and his weird obsession / vendetta with Tom Brady and the Patriots
  3. The 2014 NBA draft and its impact on the Celtics

If you’re new to reading MTAF, or if you’re new to reading my stuff on MTAF, let me set a tone. I’d rather talk about a draft that’s 6 months away than talk about my own fantasy football team. That says something, because everyone wants to talk about their fantasy football team ALL THE TIME. Have you been to any Christmas parties this year? Cripes.

This kind of stuff is what makes the NBA so much fun. You can say what you want about hating the style of play (well, you can’t say that anymore, but I understand that some of you still think it’s 2004), but no league allows fans to put themselves into a GM’s shoes quite like they do – it’s not even close. All it takes is a semi-basic understanding of how the CBA works, watching as much college basketball as you can stand, and access to the ESPN trade machine and the cadre of scouts and writers out there who know the ins and outs of the young players you haven’t seen yet.

The NFL draft is fun, but that’s about it. Their signing period is very specific and the big name players rarely move before the tail end of their prime.

Baseball’s draft is not fun unless you’re a hardcore amateur game watcher, and their transactions require you to know more about the finances of their owner than anything else, and who cares about that: “oooohh….John Henry just bought his gold-digging wife another blood diamond – does that mean he’s not going to extend Jon Lester?” Pardon me while I clean the vomit off my screen.

But we can talk about the NBA draft years in advance. I’m going to get real weird in the coming months – I’ll obsess about the Celtics’ draft not unlike Suggs obsesses about Brady’s hair, clothes, wife, style, knee, game, mouth, and possessions.

I’m going to link to Chad Ford now. I generally hate ESPN, with a few notable exceptions, because of their Kardashians approach to fake journalism. Kills me. But Ford’s a very good writer and seems to do his homework as well as my oldest daughter. Here’s his top 100 – I use it extensively: http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/draft/results/top100/_/year/2014

Celtics picks:

  • Their own – currently #16
  • The higher number pick between Atlanta or Brooklyn – currently #20 (Brooklyn’s pick, which will be conveyed to Atlanta, is currently #7)

If we go by Ford’s big board, the Celtics are looking at:

  • Jerami Grant – SF – Syracuse
  • Andrew Harrison – PG – Kentucky

Interesting that both players also have lower rated brothers that could be in this draft. I think that means something. Growing up with a brother pushing you is a good thing for most athletes.

Anyway – Ford’s board does not take into account team needs, and that’s obviously a giant thing. At this point, I think both of those positions are of need for Boston. Rajon Rondo is a free agent after next season, and right now the Celtics have Jeff Green playing out of position at the 3.

Last thing – My picks. There are some players I think are worthwhile later down the line. I hesitate to write this section, because I watch about 10 times more NBA than NCAA, so I can’t even pretend to fancy myself an expert. But as a Celtics fan who understands this team, here are my preferred options in descending order (all these players are below #20 on Ford’s Board):

  • Doug McDermott (Just kidding. He’s going to get a lot of buzz around Boston if they pick around #20 because he’s a high IQ, white, scoring forward from the Midwest. We used to have a guy like that in the 80s and have been looking for his doppelganger ever since.
  • Jabari Bird – SG – Cal
    • I like Bird because he’s a long shooting guard that they could put in a backcourt with their 2 shorter guards (Rondo and Avery Bradley). I really like Duke’s Rodney Hood, but they’ll need to get better at losing if they want him.
  • Alex Poythress – SF – Kentucky
    • I love guys who were big in high school, but dropped in 1 year of college. Poythress is overshadowed by the laundry list of top young talent John Calipari sells on Kentucky, but he’s an incredibly gifted athlete. If Boston can’t get a big name guy, they should build up pieces, and Poythress is a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist type wing defender. Desperately needed to compete in a conference that has Paul George.
  • Spencer Dinwiddie – SF – Colorado
    • I haven’t seen Dinwiddie play, but he feels like a Brad Stevens guy. Another good-sized player for his position; I love the fact that he’s 6’6 and can play both guard spots. The knock on him is that he isn’t crazy-athletic, but neither is Stevens.

So there it is. The Celtics have 2 picks this year, 2 picks next year, and 2 picks the year after. Drafts matter more than winning for the Boston 12 right now. So. Much. Fun.

The Boston Red Sox Are the Best Team In the A.L.

Sure, the Red Sox are fresh off of beating destroying the Detroit Tigers last night at Fenway Park in Boston.  Yeah, they took 2 out of 3 from the Tigers during the series, including a gritty 2-1 victory over presumptive A.L. Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer Tuesday evening.  If you checked the standings this morning, you wouldn’t be mistaken in noticing that the Boston Red Sox have the best record in the A.L. at 84-57.

However, that has not kept the ‘experts’ from naming the Tigers their favorite come the playoffs.  Many have already pushed them through to a World Series match-up with whoever comes out on top between the Braves and Dodgers.  They’re certainly entitled to their own opinion, but they’ve also been known to be wrong.  This is one of those times.

Continue reading The Boston Red Sox Are the Best Team In the A.L.

NBA Historical Draft – 1985-2013

One of the easiest ways to engage a basketball fan in a spirited argument that may or may not eventually end in fisticuffs is to participate against him/her in a historical NBA draft.

I’ve had many “discussions” with “friends” trying to decide on the best 5 players of all time. As I read through Matt Kline‘s Face of the Franchise series, it seemed like such a good old-fashioned bar argument of a column that I wanted to write one of my own. With that in mind, I recruited an old friend of mine who has very recently become a first time father. I get someone to fight with, he gets to not think about feces and milk for a while, you get to see just how dumb 2 guys can be and tell us all about it in the comments section. Please give a cold, shivering welcome to a founding member of the masslive.com Fantasy 413, Dan Reynolds.

The rules for the NBA Historical Draft are as follows:

1.       It starts in 1985.  Because I think it’s garbage to draft players based solely on what others have written about them, and because historical NBA footage is mostly available to real NBA writers only, we’re going with what we’ve seen.  If you draft Bill Walton, you’re not getting 1978 Walton.  You’re getting the guy who played 6th man for the greatest team in history (1986 Celtics). I was born in ’77, Dan was born a few years earlier, so we can base decisions on guys we saw play the game.

2.       All other players you get at their peak.  You don’t have to choose which Jordan you get – if you take him, you get his best version night in and out.

3.       Attitudes don’t matter.  If you want to draft Allen Iverson, you don’t have to be afraid that he’s going to sulk coming off the bench.

4.       Styles of play matter.  If you want to assemble guys that will beat the hell out of small guards, go nuts.  If you want to assemble Loyola Marymount’s run/gun offense, have fun.  But make sure your players compliment that style.

Your team has to win the game against my team. That’s the question voters will be asked when deciding who wins.

5.       Dan won the first pick, I have back to back picks at #s 2 and 3, then again at 9 and 10, and Dan has back to backs at 11 and 12. I don’t know – some internet site told us that was the most fair way to do a 2 man draft.

We’ll do this over a few parts this summer. I’ll try and keep each column around 1000 words. We’ll go through the first 8 picks today.

Dan won the coin toss and the right to pick first:

1. SG – Michael Jordan – No single player did as much for what we now call the modern NBA game as Jordan. He remains the standard for which every player is measured. The greatest player of his or any other generation.

Easy enough first pick, I think. By the way, Dan’s words will be in purple (he’s a freaking Lakers fan). You probably would’ve picked that up eventually, but I figured I’d speed that process up.

I’ve got back to back picks:

2. SF – Larry Bird – The best part of back to backs here is that I can pretend Larry would have been the #2 overall pick. On any team with this much talent, you’re going to need guys who live to share the ball. Bird is the greatest passing forward of all time. There is only one person more perfect for a team like this:

3. PG – Magic Johnson – The reason the Dream Team was so successful was Magic’s attitude and style of play. The reason the Showtime Lakers were so successful was Magic’s attitude and style of play. The ultimate point guard and the ultimate team leader.

4. C – Shaquille O’Neal – The Big Aristotle, Shaq-Fu, Diesel. Nuff said. A giant among men, the unstoppable force. Shaq inside and MJ on the perimeter; this could be over before we even get to the next round.

5. SF – LeBron James – Just for the fun of it, let’s keep drafting.

While I realize that Shaq’s going to be tough to defend inside, I think there’s a guy or two left out there that just might take on that challenge.

So yeah, LeBron’s my pick.  He’s the 2nd most talented player in our pool of players, and I got him with the 5th pick. And not to get too stat-geeky, but PER is a very good judge of a player’s offensive prowess. I think there will be many, many better stats coming in the next few years, especially ones that incorporate off-ball work and defense, but for now it’s PER.

The top 10 PER seasons of all time have been had by 3 players – Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.  Jordan has #s 3, 5, 8, and 9.  James has #s 4, 7, and 10 (he also has #11). Now that there’s no question that he can step up to the stage and win the biggest of games, we’re looking at someone on track to be the 2nd best player in history (took me 20 minutes to write that sentence when you factor in the breaks for dry-heaving).

I’ve got James leading the 2nd unit right now, but I could always slot him at SF and move Bird to PF depending on how the draft shakes out.  Back to you for #6.

6. C – Hakeem Olajuwon – I think this is turning into a game of chess and you may have brought your drama-queen out a tad too early. I was truly torn between this pick and another, but I’ve decided to hand you a nightmare of Nigerian proportions. Enter Hakeem.

 Rebounding, defense and the ability to score at will. I see your PER and stomp all over it with my pair of 7 footers.

7. PF – Tim Duncan – Wow, passing up a chance to draft the greatest Power Forward of all time, just to draft a Center you already have?  Colossal failure.

Give me Timmy Duncan.  Not only will I be able to match your twin towers by playing my Center next to Duncan, but I’m Greatest Of All Time at 3 of the 5 starting positions.

8. SG – Kobe Bryant  Yes, I know I still have no PG  but there’s still A LOT of talent available. 

So now I’ll throw Jordan and Jordan Lite at you for 48 minutes. Plus he’s the closest thing, comparatively speaking, to #23. And yes I’m referring to Bryant as a thing because he’s a cold, calculating snake – but no one will ever question his unquenchable desire to win. And win he will vs. the zero defense in the middle you’re throwing at me. Best grab The Admiral with one of your back-to-backs.

Eight picks in, and we both think we’ve wrapped up the title. Here’s a snapshot of how our lineups look thus far. Please feel free to weigh in, and be as mean as possible. Especially to Dan – he’s still basking in that first child glow.

[table “25” not found /]

Key players returning to school is good for the College & NBA games

To my great joy, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft passed with some surprising players choosing to remain in school for at least one more year.  I could be wrong, but it certainly seems as though more significant players chose to spend more time in college this year, than in recent years.  It’s too early to determine if this will become a trend.  If it does become a trend in the coming years, both the game of college basketball, and the NBA will be better for it.

The obvious impact for next year is on the college game.  Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne of Michigan State, Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, Doug McDermott of Creighton, and Louisville’s Russ Smith were some of the most scrutinized decisions.  That group had varying draft potential.  Smart was a sure-fire top 5 pick, while Smith would’ve gone anywhere from the late first round, into the second.

Regardless of where they would’ve gone in the draft, each will have a tremendous effect on the college basketball season in 2013-14.  It doesn’t matter what the reasons for returning were.  Whether they made the smart choice because they wanted to improve their skills; if they wanted to come back to win a championship; or if they simply like hanging out with college girls; one way or another, the choice to gain additional experience will be a positive one.

While it’s clear that the respective schools will be in better shape due to having these guys back; it may not be clear how that will make the NBA a better game.  The first and easiest answer is that the players mentioned – and any player who considered jumping to the NBA, yet chose to return – is going to further develop their game.

There was a time I loved the NBA; never as much as the college game, but I still loved to watch it.  The reason the NBA was so great in the ‘80’s through the ‘90’s, was that the fundamental skill of the players from top to bottom was far more refined.  That’s tied directly to the fact that your typical NBA player was one who had spent four years in college.  Early entries were rare.  When they did happen, we were spoiled with once in a lifetime talents like Bird, Magic, Jordan etc. 

Everybody else developed their game playing a full college career.  Refining and developing new skills doesn’t happen in the NBA.  It happens in college.  College coaches, the really good ones, know how to squeeze every ounce of potential out of their guys.  Being thrown to the wolves as a high draft choice, or riding the pine as a late first round, early second round pick; does not lead to development. 

Having kids return to school has an often overlooked effect on the NBA.  It keeps the league from continuing to get watered down with players who don’t belong there.  The reason I find the NBA so difficult to watch, is that the league is littered with extremely athletic, erratic players who really don’t belong there.

While there are always a handful of success stories, the vast majority of kids who make the jump early, do not live up to expectations.  Hell, many are flat-out busts.  Too many get to hang around the league simply because someone, somewhere still thinks they may pan out one day.  Like I said, there are some breath-taking athletes, who never truly became basketball players.

Gaining additional experience, and honing their craft, can only make a player more NBA ready when their time comes.  Whether that means a budding star becomes a legit star, a good player becomes a high level NBA player, or an average Joe becomes a solid NBA journeyman; in any case, the league rosters will consist of a higher caliber of player.

In my opinion, the most important impact a return to school has on a player is intangible.  I’m talking about the ability to learn how to win and lose.  When kids go to college for a year, maybe two, they’re essentially a rental.  So much focus is on improving draft stock, that winning and losing has little value.

I’m not saying that those kids don’t want to win, I’m sure they do.  However, there is something to be said for becoming a part of something.  Being part of a family, embracing rivalries, enjoying the sweet taste of victory, and the bitter taste of excruciating defeat is critical to building character. 

McGary and Robinson are prime examples of that for Michigan.  Both had solid freshman seasons.  Far worse players have jumped to the NBA, but they chose to stay.   These two got so close to the pinnacle, only to have it snatched away.  They’re going to take on a greater role now.  Perhaps they lead their school to a championship, or maybe they suffer another disappointment. 

In either case, they become better at the college level, as well as when they get to the NBA.  That experience carries over.  They’ll carry that to whichever teams they go to.  They’ll want to stick it to every rival.  They’ll know what it takes to win a championship, or now how bad it feels not to.  That’s something that will drive them to push themselves, and those around them.  And that goes for any player who chose to go back to school.  That’s invaluable experience that cannot be gained by leaving school early, and playing for an NBA lottery team.

Look, I’ll never begrudge a kid who comes from little means, who jumps at the chance to make millions for his family.  In this era, seeking instant gratification is the rule, not the exception.  However, if more kids stayed in the college game, the cumulative effect would be astounding.

First, the college game would be better, with more highly skilled players.  While some players may lose some draft value, they will likely be set up for a more meaningful career, with greater longevity due to the extra development; rather than being a high lottery pick that becomes a bust.  Ultimately, the NBA game will be better because from the skill level of the brightest star to the last guy off the bench will be more refined.

I could be getting way ahead of myself.  Next year, there may be a mass exodus of ill-prepared youngsters to the NBA.  I hope that’s not the case.  Hopefully, more and more college hoops players realize that the money isn’t going anywhere; and that investing an extra year or two in school, may make them a better long-term investment for an NBA franchise.  If that does become a trend, college basketball will be even better; and the NBA will become a game that I may just want to watch.

Jack McCallum's "Dream Team" is a Must-Read Book

by Ryan Isley

As soon as I had watched the Dream Team special on NBA TV a couple of weeks ago and saw that Jack McCallum had a book coming out chronicling what may have been the greatest basketball team to ever take to the court, I knew I had to order it.

Every now and then when I pick up a book to begin reading, it is so intriguing that I simply cannot put it down. That exact thing happened to me this week when my pre-ordered copy of “Dream Team” arrived on Monday afternoon.

Listen – I am not a book reviewer and Jack McCallum doesn’t need someone like me to talk about how great of a book it is and justify his writing the book.

Compared to McCallum, I am just some schmuck who writes for a sports website that he has probably never heard of – or maybe never will for that matter. In fact, if I ever ran into McCallum in a media room somewhere, the respected writer would probably look at me the way the 1996 US Olympic basketball team looked at Juan Antonio Orenga at the opening ceremonies in Atlanta. (You will understand this reference after you read the book).

That all being said, I am still going to write about the book.

Continue reading Jack McCallum's "Dream Team" is a Must-Read Book