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By popular account, the Lakers got obliterated in the playoffs this year because their defense fell apart, their stars didn’t perform at star levels, and because they had no trust in each other. Those reasons all seem plausible, though perhaps in different ratios than suggested in the screenplay that is so often Lakers coverage. The stories are easier to believe when plainly visible on the court: Dallas averaged an excellent 113.8 ORtg during the second-round series; Kobe and Pau Gasol were inefficient and ineffective. But the trust issues? Those were more subtle. Scowls and body language don’t always get picked up by television cameras; sound bytes get taken out of context and overblown. Still, I don’t doubt that they exist–the personalities and relationships of the Lakers are well documented.

So did we see the same thing out of the Miami Heat? In Game 2 of the NBA Finals? Smart basketball minds had little difficulty spotting the disaster they were creating for themselves even as it was happening. “Hero ball” took over and the points stopped coming. There was no chemistry, no semblance of order or purpose, just basketball players (albeit a few very very good ones) telling everyone and each other, “I got this.” What resulted was one of the most stunning collapses/comebacks (I suppose it depends on which camp you’re in) in Finals history.

Is there writing on the walls? If so, I’d warrant the paint is still wet.

LeBron James has stirred his fair share of controversy in the NBA, and not just in the past 10 months. But trust issues? Was there ever an inkling of dissension in the ranks, at least among the players, that threatened to derail a team of his? I’ve always imagined issues on or off the court being easily remedied by each player sticking his friendship ring into a circle and giving a loud, “huzzah!” It was so visible in Cleveland. The elaborate handshakes, the choreographed introductions and celebrations, it all pointed to a tight-knit basketball commune, bearing serious resemblance to the teams of the old Soviet Union who basically grew up together. It’s a departure from Jordan’s fiery intensity that is oh so relevant in the Great Debate. LeBron is praised for his distribution as much as his scoring; he elevated players to levels hitherto unknown (if you’ll forgive the narrative standby). It was still LeBron & the rest as far as talent and responsibility were concerned, but one man does not a basketball team make.

Unfortunately, that saying still holds true for three people–two if you trust Carlos Boozer. Yet that’s exactly what the Heat turned into Thursday night. It was subtle, again, but it was amplified by its results. What was first hinted at with Dwyane Wade refusing to give the ball up to Mario Chalmers during a two-on-one (he scored anyway, for the record) rapidly evolved into a me-against-the-world approach to basketball. And it failed, miserably. Chris Bosh was essentially frozen out of the offense in the last few minutes, and while he’d had an awful offensive game to that point, he remains the Heat’s third-best player by a wide margin. LeBron and Wade mixed dribbling with stepbacks and long threes. Even on the last play of the game, Chalmers–the guy who was 6 percentage points better from behind the arc than Wade this season, and had tied the game a possession earlier–was left largely uncovered just a step behind the arc. Time constraints obviously limited his involvement, but even if there was another second or two on the clock, is anyone confident Wade would’ve given that ball up?

The top guns of the Miami Heat seemed convinced that they were the only ones who could deliver victory in Game 2. These are the same guys that won just about every game for the Heat to this point, but it didn’t come off as confident in Game 2. It came off as stubborn, arrogant even, if you prefer to read that far into things. The supporting cast in Cleveland wasn’t great, but they certainly eclipsed their Miami counterparts. Maybe that talent disparity is enough to discourage the kind of cooperation that formed the norm in Ohio? Or maybe it borne solely of confidence, perhaps overblown by the very heroics that carried Miami to where they are now. It shouldn’t matter. The Heat are headed to Dallas with a “1-1” scratched into the whiteout covering the spot where “2-0” was penned in. They’re in this situation because of something that had previously been a non-issue. That’s enough to be worried about.

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The big guns don’t rebuild, they reload.

So goes the saying–a  bit of conventional basketball wisdom that definitely counts the Los Angeles Lakers among those big guns. Until just yesterday, it was strange to think about what would follow the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant era, if only because the end seemed far off. Maybe not in a temporal sense, but certainly in a spiritual sense, which Jackson would probably appreciate. Phil was set to retire at the end of this year regardless, but it was supposed to be graceful. Either finish his career clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy, or bow out in honorable defeat, like an old man relaxing into his favorite armchair.

It definitely wasn’t supposed to be like this. The two-time defending champs, swept under the rug? And not just swept, but exposed. Revealed for the team they were, a team that fell short of the standards to which the organization held itself. There were individual incidents, certainly, and no shortage of minor controversies to boot, but there was still pride in the Purple and Gold.

Not yesterday. Yesterday tore it apart. I can’t speak to the incidents of the past, but I am hard-pressed to believe many offences rival what Andrew Bynum (and Lamar Odom, to a lesser extent) pulled on the court Sunday. Egregious physicality aside, to see a professional athlete strip off his jersey in front of the nation like that, to cast aside his teammates and organization in such a deliberate, base manner, was honestly shocking.

This season seems to have inspired a stunning amount of personal appraisal by the public of NBA athletes. We are not party to the decision-making process of our favorite players, but we’re all deeply affected by their actions. This is simply the unavoidable truth of sports today; it is not something I intend or even desire to ignore. We can debate the merits of Derrick Rose’s humility (boring-ness?), LeBron James’s confidence (ego?), and Vince Carter’s commitment (?), but I myself often make the mistake of passing judgement on such things without any real reason to do so. These are private guys, whose positions lend motives few of us really understand. Not the case last night. Anyone who watched the Los Angeles era crumble in Dallas last night knows exactly what happened.

So where do the Lakers go from here? The LA “title window” was not as small as that of this year’s Celtics, or maybe even the Mavs. Kobe Bryant may be slowing, but he is hardly out of gas. There is still a ton of talent in LA (not even counting the Clippers), and failing to maintain rule over the NBA empire for 1,095 consecutive days isn’t really a death sentence. Accept your fate, regroup, and set out next season to reclaim the throne.

I’m not sure such a thing is possible anymore. The organization may be equipped to handle the logistics, the finances, and everything else, but Sunday’s debacle put a psychological nail in the Jackson/Bryant era coffin. If there were trust issues before, what about now? What kind of impact does the utter breakdown of a team from defending champs to disgraced flameout have? I would trust a figure like Jackson to guide a team through it, but will he be there to do it? I trust Kobe’s dedication to winning to put everything else aside in its interest, but Kobe can’t do this alone anymore.

Even if the summer gives this team a chance to repair itself, will anyone accept it? This is hardly the Malice at the Palace, but it seems like events like this stand as a point-of-no-return. There’s no going back to the way things were. When that means leaving behind a legacy of champions, where do you go? In truth, I have no idea. But I will be surprised if the same team, or even one similar, trots out on the court when next season begins. It’s simply too hard to play basketball carrying this kind of emotional baggage.

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I’ve been a fan of Wisconsin Basketball longer than I’ve been a fan of most anything else. Back when I was drinking milk out of little paper cartons and going outside to play between math and reading, I was a Wisconsin Basketball fan. It was my first real love in the world of sports. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where I truly hated Wisconsin Basketball.

I admit, Wisconsin doesn’t play a particularly aesthetic brand of basketball. I won’t make the mistake of equating beauty with effectiveness, because there is simply no way to argue with the consistent success this team has achieved: 13 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, stellar home record, plus a handful of Big Ten Titles. Every year it seems there’s no way the Badgers can continue that streak, or compete with a steadily improving Big Ten, and yet by season’s end they’ve battled their way to the top of the standings. Maybe not always the tip-top, but certainly not down in the basement. Impressive, no doubt, but the ride there isn’t always scenic.

Still, as long as I’ve been a student at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve found plenty to complain about. I wish Wisconsin would recruit more, and it kills me when top Wisconsin prospects leave the state. As good as this team is at holding a lead, I don’t think they can play from behind very well. As good a coach as Bo Ryan is, his dedication to a system sometimes limits the potential of his individual players, and when the system doesn’t work in a particular game, I don’t think he’s a great adjustment maker.

In that respect, this season was no different. Despite near record-breaking shooting from the free-throw line, the Badgers weren’t particularly good at getting there. The defense, while still good, wasn’t as strong as years past. And the player I had convinced myself was the best NBA prospect Wisconsin had seen in some time, Jon Leuer, turned out to be only the second-best player on the team for much of the year, overshadowed by Jordan Taylor’s spectacular play. Yet for all that, I again couldn’t question the results. For much of the season, Wisconsin was the best offensive team in the nation, eventually settling in second behind Ohio State. They finished third in the Big Ten, easily one of the top two conferences in the nation.

That’s exactly what made last night’s Sweet 16 loss to Butler so tough. On the surface, it was the same old loss to a mid-major that has ended Wisconsin’s season so many times recently. This wasn’t a typical Wisconsin loss due to some systemic flaw in the game plan, though. The Badgers matched up across the floor with the Bulldogs, and their statistical resume was superior nearly across the board. This was a completely disastrous single-game performance, plain and simple. Wisconsin could not for the life of them get the ball through the rim. The Badgers actually played reasonably good defense, holding Butler to under a point per possession. Despite the continual protesting from media members, they didn’t “settle” for jumpers. Nearly every shot Wisconsin took came from a reasonably efficient zone on the floor: either behind the three-point line or within about 10 feet of the basket. That didn’t lessen the frustration that flooded my veins every time a Jon Leuer hook shot bounced across the back of the rim or a Jordan Taylor three went long. It was a head-scratching loss, a performance that would have blindsided everyone had it not happened against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago. The excellent Big Ten Geek’s Blog points out a sad fact:

Twice this season Wisconsin has posted an effective field goal percentage under 40.0.  The first time was when the team scored 33 points against Penn State in the slowest game between Division I foes in some 13 years.  The second time was last night.

The Badgers played Wisconsin basketball last night, but picked a bad time of year to become wildly inconsistent with their shooting. The same guy who single-handedly dragged Wisconsin to victory over the nation’s top team during the regular season completely fell apart. The fourth-year senior who could have played his way into the first round of the NBA Draft was a mess. Few things went right, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time. As a Wisconsin basketball fan, I’m pretty familiar with low expectations, and I’m almost as familiar with seeing the team exceed them. But last night, I expected a Wisconsin victory. If that was a mistake on my part, it’s a sad commentary on the state of this program. Either way, thinking about what should have been sucks a lot more than thinking about what could have been.

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I was reading the latest article up on Hardwood Paroxysm, regarding the infamous “long 2” and it’s role in offensive and defensive efficiency, and was intrigued by the apparent disconnect between above- and below-average defensive teams and the percentage of long 2s they force opponents to take. As described in the article, the correlation between forcing long 2s and better defensive efficiency seems much stronger in below-average defensive teams than the elite defensive teams. Why is that? Why does forcing long 2s suddenly become less important when you start talking about the best defenses in the NBA?

I’d warrant that the key difference is this: the best defensive teams in the NBA don’t always need to force long 2s. The conventional wisdom (and, by extension, the statistical framework) doesn’t apply equally to good defensive teams. That sounds illogical, though. If long 2s are indeed the least valuable shots in the NBA, why would any team not pursue the advantage of forcing opponents into those shots?

Let’s not blind ourselves by looking exclusively at numbers. Consider those teams in the “elite” defensive efficiency range. Each has the benefit of a standout defensive player or players, an exceptional defensive system, or most likely a combination of both. San Antonio has Tim Duncan, Orlando has Dwight Howard, Boston has Garnett/Rondo, Cleveland had LeBron. Milwaukee has a great system plus perennial DPOY-snub Andrew Bogut. The Lakers have a great coach and a bunch of good defenders. Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Miami all had solid defensive schemes and players in place.

The point is – and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch – those teams all have factors contributing to their defense that are far more important than opponent shot distributions. In improperly-applied mathematical terms, the defensive efficiency of above-average teams is more a function of their own ability than their opponent’s shot selection. Meanwhile, those teams who can’t (or don’t) play high-caliber defense are far more subject to the performance of their opponents. Conceivably, the efficiency rankings for those below-average teams are a result of which teams randomly gave up more high- vs. low-percentage shots. Obviously this isn’t the exclusive factor – we can all agree that basketball is more complex than just shot selection, and we would expect the graph to be perfectly correlated in such a one-variable system. But the correlation is strong enough to suggest that affecting shot selection is a useful defensive technique. It is, however, still subject to an occasional hot-shooting night from the opponent.

In Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver explains how inconsistency tends to drag teams toward a .500 record. The discrepancy in HP’s graph suggests that the best defensive teams avoid such inconsistency by excelling at factors that are easier to control. Maybe they have a good shot-blocker, or they defend pick-and-rolls well. If you imagine an idealized team that blocks a very high percentage of shots at the rim, it might even be advantageous to funnel opponents inside, rather than forcing long 2s. The point is, good defenses force opponents to conform to a game-plan that favors the defender. Teams who can’t do this tend to perform better when opponents shoot bad shots. Thus, the best teams can play effective defense independent of opponent shot selections.

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15/2/10

Not a date formatted Germany-style, but Brandon Jennings’ stat line from tonight’s opening game in New Orleans. After averaging just over 6 assists a game last year, Jennings made an obvious effort to get his teammates involved tonight. He still took 14 shots, but at least 2 of those misses that I counted were desperation shots at the end of broken plays. He was also 2/3 at the rim and 2/6 from three, rounding out a semi-respectable 47.6 TS%. Realistically, what can we glean about Jennings’ shot after one game? Not much.

What did impress me about Jennings’ game was how his court vision stood up throughout Milwaukee’s possessions. Brandon assisted on six Milwaukee 3-pointers, including at least one Carlos Delfino shot from the corner where Jennings hit him off a baseline cut from under the basket. Just a flat-out pretty play. He also managed to save a ball from going out under the hoop and got it in to Andrew Bogut under the basket for an easy two.

Milwaukee has an interesting conundrum on his hands thanks to his fantastic quickness. There were obvious times where he wanted to push the ball off long rebounds or turnovers, but this Bucks team isn’t exactly swimming in athletes to run a break with him. As a result, Jennings periodically found himself surrounded by opponents while the rest of his squad chugged down the floor to meet him. At least twice Jennings took advantage of the relative chaos as players found their defensive assignments and got to their positions. If I remember correctly, he hit Carlos Delfino driving the lane once, and did…something else good.

Point is, I was too engrossed in the first real Bucks game since last spring to take notes of key plays. More important point is: Brandon Jennings is improving. Rapidly. That bodes well for everyone.

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I haven’t posted anything here in a while (MIDTERMS!), and the recent news out of Milwaukee is relatively important, so I figured I’d point readers to the appropriate location for a limited analysis of the move that finalized Milwaukee’s roster. You can find it here, along with a couple other posts. Check out the poll and be sure to vote for your favorite Bucks player! We’re interested in hearing how people feel about this move and the team as it now stands, so join in the conversation by posting your comments!

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OMG SHOES.

Brandon Jennings made some interesting comments regarding his “snub” from US National Team tryouts. Apparently the Global Shoe Conspiracy that is Nike conspired to keep him and his Under Armour kicks out of the spotlight at the World Championships.

I’m not saying it’s a Nike thing, but Nike is kind of running a lot of things right now. To have a guy like myself on the USA team that’s flashy and really outgoing, you don’t want Under Armour to get all that [publicity].

Brandon, why!?! You were having such a great summer. You’ve given us a multitude of highlight reels with some of the other young stars in the NBA, some clever commentary on the rise of the superteam, and an image to associate with Lady Gaga that might actually be stranger than Gaga herself.

But this shoe thing has crossed the line. Even if the fashion industry is responsible for every major assassination in history, that’s not what kept you off Team USA. It was this.

I’m just telling you how it is.

We know Brandon, and we’re all still really happy the franchise is in your hands. But please, go work on your shot. I don’t care what shoes you wear.

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