Does size really matter?

Opponents towering over Team U.S.A? Get used to it. (Photo by Associated Press).

 

Lost within the mindless drivel of whether or not this year’s U.S. men’s basketball Olympic team could beat the 1992 Dream Team is the intriguing test of ideals posed by the current representatives.

First things first: this year’s team would not stand a chance against the ’92ers. Not. A. Chance. As athletic, quick and versatile as this year’s version is, there is no question the Dream Team’s vast size, bulk and efficiency (i.e. pure shooting) would be too much to handle. That efficiency would severely limit transition opportunities for this year’s bunch and force the 2012ers to play in the halfcourt more than they’d like. Not only that, the ’92ers would own the glass and do a sound job of getting to the free throw line, limiting possessions and pace, both attributes this year’s team thrives and is heavily dependent upon. So can we stop with the nonsense, please? Yes, it makes for good conversation, but the bottom line is it’s disrespectful to the 92ers, whom many – including moi – consider the greatest team of talent ever assembled.

Now that that’s over with, let’s talk a bit about whether or not we are truly entering a new era of basketball, something that’s been at the forefront of the minds of hoops enthusiasts ever since Miami won the 2012 NBA title with smallball (though many conveniently neglect how significant of a role LeBron’s improved post play figured into matters). It’s been noted how small this year’s USA team is; only two player stand taller than 6-foot-9). They are wing-heavy, reliant upon incredible versatility, interchangeable parts that cover up fantastic flaws. At one point during Thursday’s 113-59 smothering of the Dominican Republic in an exhibition in Las Vegas, the USA trotted out a lineup of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Thirty-eight points were scored off 27 turnovers, and when the DR zoned, the good guys were able to find Kevin Durant, the team’s lone pure shooter, time and time again. It was fun basketball, pickup at its best. Run, run, run. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Wash, rinse, repeat. Rarely – if ever – was the U.S. forced to slow it down and play through a man defense in the halfcourt.

But there is a reason Americans watch the likes of Spain and Argentina with a careful eye. Spain, in particular. With an experienced point guard in Jose Calderon who can deal with pressure competently and not lose his poise when the likes of James and Bryant are in his face, Spain looms as the U.S.’s biggest threat when you add the tall and beefy Gasol brothers and stringy shot-blocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka. Or how about France and Tony Parker? Or Argentina and Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola. If the U.S. did not boast just Tyson Chandler as its lone true center, then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But competitive basketball comes down to two things: Can you stop the other team, and can you execute when it counts? And those two come hand-in-hand with halfcourt basketball and producing when stakes are high and possessions are precious; when the game has slowed to a considerable crawl and not a track meet. The optimist’s thinking is that, just as much as we consider how the U.S. is going to match up against opponents, opponents are going to have to guard them too. This is true, and no one questions how nightmarish of a headache it will be to stop the U.S., especially if racking up transition points. However, playing on a smaller court, in more limited space, size matters in FIBA, and that’s something the U.S. lacks since Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, and now Blake Griffin are all out with injury. I find it highly amusing that people think the U.S. will cakewalk to another gold medal when even the elements of the game (closer 3-point line means less operating room, and the court itself is smaller in FIBA) do not lend favor to the U.S.

I have long been a fan of traditional basketball (if you can’t tell). Give me size and bulk any day. I want rim protectors. I want guys I can throw the ball into and work inside-out. I want guys who can play with their back to the basket, guys who protect the lane. I want guys who can post up, get to the rim and draw contact and get their defender in foul trouble. That’s basketball. The idea of basketball is to put the ball in the hoop, and you have a harder time doing that if you have guys who can protect the rim and force opponents to shoot jump shots (preferably 3s). The U.S. has almost always had a team who could do those things AND outlet to the skill guys who could race the other way for easy dunks or wide open 3s. Now this bunch only does the latter. Gone are the days of a David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Kevin Garnett. And while offense struggles with a lack of size, that won’t necessarily prove the case with these U.S.ers. They’ll score just fine. It’ll be on defense where it will be felt the most, when LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are having to guard the Gasol brothers and could find themselves in quick foul trouble if Spain plays it right.

These Olympics, I can’t wait. Not only will we see if Kobe can win a gold in his (in all probability) swan song on this grand stage, or what LeBron will do for an encore after a legendary championship run, but two basketball eras are clashing – this era of speed and athleticism versus the traditional route of size and strength. Who will prosper, and is this a movement to new form of basketball? We shall see.

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Back and better than ever

It has indeed been a lengthy hiatus for HoopScribe. Over the past 11 months or so, I found myself putting this blog on hold to get a better grasp on career and family and reestablish priorities.

Missions accomplished.

Now, we’re back, so I intend to post regularly. For those who have stuck around, thank you.  I look forward to continue highlighting hoops on all levels, but with a particular emphasis on Texas basketball. If you do have any suggestions or ideas, please do not hesitate to contact me at densilva2@gmail.com.

Glad to be back.

The art of shooting

 

Pure shooters hold a special place in my heart.

Growing up as a basketball fan, and rec player, I loved watching shooters. I, myself, was one. There was nothing more pleasing to me that spending a few hours after school just shooting – free throws, layups, mid-range shots and, of course, 3-pointers.

I craved the peace. Just you, the ball and your thoughts. I craved the routine: Dribble. Breathe. Rise. Shoot. Release. I craved the discipline; my father always preached height, accuracy and distance. Those three things, and you HAD the shot. I will remember that as long as I live, since I was entered in free-throw shooting competitions in elementary school to my days as a college intramural player.

In high school, I would shoot outside, from about 4:30 p.m. to 8, focusing on the craft – how to get open, where to get my shots, where to get the perfect release off, how to set up defenders. My shot was not perfect. My brother says I shot from my chest; it was hardly ever blocked. There was little lift involved. My release was quick and my extension was perfect.

To make a long story short, I admire pure shooters. The dedication, commitment and routine devoted to becoming a special shooter is one that is demanding. So when I was able to watch Ray Allen break Reggie Miller’s all-time 3-point makes record last night, I almost teared up.

The record-breaker could not have been set up any better. Rajon Rondo got the ball on the left side and started a fast break. Allen ran down the right side in transition, as Rondo waved him on to spot up. Allen caught the ball in stride, with no Laker anywhere close, and mounted and shot for 3-pointer No. 2,561.

But it did not come easy. Allen begins his game day arriving to the arena four hours early, shooting all kinds of shots, feeling for his rhythm. He shoots off-balanced, straight ahead, running … every shot he imagines he could get in a game, he shoots. And this is how it is for shooters. This is how it was for Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, Glen Rice, all of whom would shoot, shoot, shoot, whether it was in damp gyms, under bleak street lights, in snow, in rain. There is no stopping.

It’s why Miller applauded Allen and never once showed discomfort toward his record being broken. He understood what it took to get to that point, and what he loved was that we were talking about shooting, a dying art in a world of Blake Griffins, LeBron James’ and Kevin Durants. Shooting remains the heart of the game, yet so few understand that. Or, they refuse to work at it, willing to train in their JumpSoles instead of shooting at the park, rain or shine.

It’s why I, by no means a complete basketball player, shot whenever and wherever. I loved shooting. I respected it. Shooters do not take their gift for granted. To this day, I pantomime shooting. I cradle a ball and shoot it. It never leaves you.

Rice once said, “Shooting is an art.” And how right he was. Shooters are not born. They are made. Players with spectacular physical gifts were given those at birth. Shooters are made by hours upon hours of work, shooting and wearing out the leather on one too many basketballs.

I remember once, one of my colleagues in college once said he saw me in the gym too much, so he looked up my grades, made sure my priorities weren’t backward. They weren’t. I was a fine student. But any free time was spent in the gym, not trying to dunk or shoot halfcourt shots or work out on weights. But shooting. We all yearn to find a niche, and I felt the only way I belonged a basketball court was because I could shoot. At their ages, Miller, Allen and Rice all felt the same; in an age of ball that is becoming faster, quicker and more athletic with each passing season, they had to find a way to make themselves valuable to still earn a paycheck.

So, they shot. And shot. And shot some more.

Records are made to be broken. But only if you put in the work.

 

 

The madness of Mahmoud

Looking through old NBA game tapes a few days ago, I came across a classic Rockets-Grizzlies late-season affair from the 2000-2001 season. I say classic because of two things: One, it was the last game played in Vancouver before the Grizzlies departed to Memphis. Two, it was the final game of an illustrious career for one of the greatest shooters/scorers to ever put on a pair of sneakers, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

Abdul-Rauf, the former Chris Jackson before he changed to Islam, played nine years in The Association, averaging 14.6 points on 44 percent shooting. He owns a career 90 percent free-throw percentage, and once scored 51 points in a game, against Utah in 1995. Scoring in bunches was nothing new for the guard, who averaged 29 points on 47 percent shooting in two years at LSU, and was named first team All-American as a freshman.

But he is most known for the following event. It was a situation that essentially got him frowned upon by the league.

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Abdul-Rauf is perhaps best known for the controversy created when he refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games, stating that the flag was a symbol of oppression and that the United States had a long history of tyranny. He said that standing to the national anthem would therefore conflict with his Islamic beliefs. On March 12, 1996, the NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for his refusal to stand, but the suspension lasted only one game. Two days later, the league was able to work out a compromise with him, whereby he would stand during the playing of the national anthem but could close his eyes and look downward. He usually silently recited a Muslim prayer during this time.

In an apparent publicity stunt gone wrong linked to this controversy, four employees of Denver’s KBPI radio station were charged with misdemeanor offenses related to entering a Colorado mosque and playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a bugle and trumpet, in a provocative response to Abdul-Rauf’s refusal to stand for the national anthem.

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The 6-foot Abdul-Rauf, a mercurial figure to say the least, also overcame Tourette syndrome during his career and was a godsend for basketball purists. He lived on a deadly midrange jump shot. Not much of a 3-point shooter or driver to the rim, he boasted one of the most beautiful releases ever, as quick as a blink, and was a master at using screens to get himself open. This was never more apparent, fittingly enough, in his career finale against the Rockets in the Grizzlies’ 100-95 loss, when he scored 25 points (on 12 of 19 shooting) in 23 minutes, exclusively in the second and fourth quarters.

His performance in the game is a thing of beauty. In a contest that featured a myriad of quick, athletic talents, such as Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, Mike Bibby and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, it was Abdul-Rauf, who averaged 19.7 points per 36 minutes played, who stole the show, keeping the Grizzlies afloat early and late. It would be the last game of a terrific career; a career that too often goes unnoticed for reasons that may be obvious.

Still, when it comes to the great shooters and scorers to ever step on a NBA floor, Mahmoud’s name should be up there with some of the greats.

 

What to make of Miami’s XMas win

 

LeBron James may have stood tall over Kobe and the Lakers on Christmas Day, but their is no hiding his team's flaws.

 

 

Watching Miami’s blowout 96-80 win over the Lakers on Christmas Day, only one thing in particular struck me about the much-hyped, sensationalized game between one NBA heavyweight and another supposed contender.

That thing was this: How blatantly obvious it was that the Lakers did not care.

This was supposed to be a game that declared the Lakers’ supremacy as the league’s best. It was supposed to be another opponent that the Heat fell to; one that showed that Miami still has quite a way to go, no matter how sexy its winning streaks.

Instead, this was a Los Angeles team that showed little effort or heart, aside from the first play of the game on a beautifully designed alley-oop set from Kobe to Lamar Odom.

Instead, it was all Miami, all the time. The Heat held the Lakers 25 points below their season average. LeBron James earned his third triple-double of the season. Chris Bosh destroyed Pau Gasol in the paint, opening a lot of eyes for those who suggested the Lakers’ frontcourt would deem Miami’s laughable.

The bottom line came to this: Miami, simply, cared. Los Angeles did not. This was a game that was so much more important to the Heat that I’m not exactly sure what to take away from it. Yes, I was impressed by Miami’s relentless defense and a much improved passing game thanks to an offense that is moving freer and more often.

But this was a game the Heat needed to win if it wanted to be amongst the true legit title contenders. The problem was, the Lakers so willingly let them have it. Phil Jackson might as well have been absent, refusing to pound the Heat inside or go zone to negate the driving and passing lanes and force jumpers. Kobe forced some things, showed some anger but otherwise seemed disinterested. And when Kobe and Phil are disinterested, it’s very easy for the rest of the Lakers to follow suit.

As two-time defending champs, the Lakers – rightfully so – don’t have anything to prove until the playoffs. These games mean little to them, no matter how much ESPN and the media wish to hype them up. Kobe and Co. are clearly saving their energy for the more important games in late April, May and June. After all, a third consecutive title won’t be won in December, no matter how titanic the matchup.

“These games mean more to our opponents than they do us,” Kobe acknowledged following the game, stressing a need to fix that.  “We always suck on Christmas … they should just take us off this day.”

As far as Miami, it was a solid road victory. Impressive? At the very least. Their defense was excellent. We knew that. The offense looks a whole lot healthier. That’s a positive sign.

But no matter how many wins they compile in the regular season, their true essence lies in this: They are weakest at the league’s two most vital positions, center and point guard. And until that is resolved, this is a team bound for the Eastern Conference semifinals, maybe the East finals if the cards fall right. Individual games can be easily won courtesy of individual greatness. But in a seven game series against the likes of a Chicago, Boston or Orlando, that lack of size and a true playmaker – not to mention substantial depth – will become their downfall unless it is addressed before March.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are not a cast of emotionally empty talents, which is why it’s simple to cast Saturday’s episode as an aberration. They will be heard from when it counts, and it’s because of what they DO have – superior size, depth and playmaking – that I’m not sure their ugly holiday loss should mean much in the big picture.

 

A new road for Rhodes

"The Franchise"

Diehard Rockets fans are familiar with the name Rodrick Rhodes. Rodrick was the 24th pick of the 1997 draft of the Rockets; a prospect so tantalizing broadcaster Calvin Murphy nickamed him “The Franchise.”

As a Rocket, I remember him as an athletic guard who could play either backcourt position; a solid defensive player and passer who was not the best of outside shooters. Rhodes played in 61 games as a Rocket and averaged 5.7 points and less than two assists and two rebounds per game. He shot 36 percent from the field and attempted just eight 3-pointers (making two) during his time in H-Town.

Rhodes enjoyed a five-year NBA career with the Rockets, Vancouver Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks from 1997-2002, and also played professionally overseas in Greece, Cyprus, the Philippines, France and Puerto Rico, before embarking on a coaching career, which has now taken him not far from my location, to Edinburg as an assistant coach with the University of Texas Pan-American.

Here is Rhodes’ bio: http://www.utpabroncs.com/coaches.aspx?rc=150&path=mbball

I have requested an interview with Rodrick, just to get his thoughts on his pro career and his new career in coaching.  Of course, I shall update you should Mr. Rhodes get back to me.