Centers' Little Helper

Dennis Hans, unrenowned former adjunct professor of mass comm and American foreign policy, relentlessly exposed the Bush administration’s “techniques of deceit” BEFORE the Iraq war, when it could have made a difference (see links). For decades he has fought baseball’s discrimination against lefthanded infielders and promoted his ingenious clockwise solution. A lifelong advocate for a flowing, non-brutal, flop-free NBA, he now champions the cause of its second-class citizens: the centers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Raymond Felton on the fundamentals of palming
There is no more fitting artifact of the laughingstock Stern administration than this 2010 "ihoops" commercial featuring point guard Raymond Felton. For those not in the know, ihoops is "the official youth basketball initiative of the NCAA, the NBA and the WNBA."

The off-screen announcer informs viewers that " is the ultimate online resource for youth basketball, designed to take your knowledge and skills to the next level." Felton emerges at the 0:24 mark of the commercial and repeatedly demonstrates a lefthanded — and illegal — blatant palming pseudo-dribble as the announcer declares, without irony or sarcasm, "learn the fundamentals of the game from those who play it best."

This is not a case of mismatched audio and video, where Felton is under the impression his task is to demonstrate an illegal act. No, this is how Felton routinely "dribbles" with his left hand. And he's hardly the only point guard who does. Why not? It's rarely called and it's much more effective than a legal dribble.

The slower, looping, palming motion gets the player's left hand under the ball, so he has the option of whipping a one-hand lefty pass with every dribble. If he dribbled legally, he'd only have that option after his last dribble, not any of the ones that preceded it, because once that hand goes under the ball he can only throw the ball or pick it up; he can't dribble again. At least not legally. And by cradling the ball as he "dribbles," the player always has the option of springing a left-to-right crossover on his defender. The ref will not only let the cradle slide, he'll allow an extra step so the driver can finish as a righty (off his left foot) even though his last dribble was as a lefty. Life is good for the modern point guard and others who monopolize the ball.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The James Harden triple-step travel and other adventures in NBA counting
I wrote much of the following during the 2012 playoffs, but never posted or published it. After watching Steve Smith of NBA TV's "Smitty's Top 5 Plays Under the Rim" the other day, when two of the plays, by Kevin Durant (the first of KD's two highlights) and volume-palmer Raymond Felton, were right-handed versions of the Harden move described below, I thought I'd better share this with the world. As is often the case when such plays occur or are later celebrated, no one at the mic or on the set questioned their legality.

At 2:54 of the second quarter of Game 5 (L.A. at Oklahoma City), Thunder lefty James Harden executed his pet driving move by making his last dribble with his right hand opposite his left foot, which as a righty embarking on a running one-hander would entitle him to two more steps: a right and then a left, elevating off that left foot as righthanders do countless times in layup lines throughout the world. But in the bizarre world of David Stern's NBA, Harden, as a reward for having learned how to dribble with his opposite hand (and often in a manner that used to be a palming violation), is granted an extra step by Stu Jackson and Ronnie Nunn's refs. This enables Harden — after completing his dribble — to cover an immense amount of the court with maximum maneuverability (he becomes a running back for those three steps) and to finish with his preferred left hand off his preferred right foot.

Righties do this, too, getting the bonus step by taking their last dribble with their left hand. I've seen Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Felton and Durant do it quite a few times. No doubt Ronnie Nunn can come up with some explanation revolving around the precise moment that any of these players picked up the ball to prove that this is not traveling (though that alibi is not available on many if not most of these plays). My response to that is this: Who cares what Ronnie Nunn thinks? Or Bernie Fryer. Or Stu Jackson. Or General Ron Johnson. It's long past time to tune these clowns out.

Having watched Nunn on NBA TV for a few years, I've concluded he's either certifiably insane or a smooth-talking public-relations hack. If it's the latter, it's possible that he thinks his explanations are as laughable as I do, but lacks the courage to be an ex-whistle blower turned "whistleblower" — that is, an ex-ref willing to risk his job by saying what he really thinks.

On a show during the 2011-12 season, while justifying a non-travel call on a Manu Ginobili buzzer-beating game-winning jumpshot from about 18 feet, Nunn introduced the novel concept that jumping off of one foot and landing on two constitutes neither a single jump nor two airborne steps (itself and oxymoron, given that one doesn't leave one's feet when taking a "step"), but simply one step. Needless to say, Ginobili's shot would have been much more difficult if his final effort with his feet had been limited to what the entire non-Nunn world considers "one step."

From near midcourt, Ginobili drove to his left while dribbling with his left hand, picked up the ball opposite his right foot (what's known as the "gather" step), took a step with his left foot, then jumped a considerable distance sideways, landing far from his defender and in balance as his right foot hit the floor a split second before his left. This should be counted as three steps — and thus a travel — whether his feet land simultaneously or not: following the gather step with his right foot, we had either a left-right-left sequence, or a left and simultaneous right-left sequence. Either sequence adds up to three.

What if Ginobili had been limited to two actual steps? He would have had to:

(1) shoot a difficult running one-hander off his right foot (his legal second step);
(2) forego his second step and shoot a pull-up jumper with his left foot being his first and final step after the gather (as Jerry West and Oscar Robertson did thousands of times, though with the steps opposite, as they are righties);
(3) take two legal steps that would hit the floor nearly simultaneously and fire a jumper with the defender much closer to him than on his actual game-winner (the common "jumpstop," though I think the NBA needs to go back to disallowing active jumping after the dribble but before the shot or pass [see LeBron, Shaq, Dwight and many others], and instead just allow what might be termed "two together-steps," which would be counted as two and would leave the player without an active pivot foot); or
(4) take his last two (left, then right) steps in normal stepping sequence, which I believe would leave him with a legal left pivot foot (the second and last step, the right, can't be the pivot foot, because that would give him the option of a third step — an illegal left-right-left sequence a la Harden and Durant). This would have allowed Ginobili other options, such as pivoting counterclockwise on the left foot and firing a tough fadeaway.

Here's a question for old-timers such as West and Robertson: Did they have the option of using that first step after the gather as a pivot foot? It is just so common in vintage footage to see a righthanded player, when dribbling to the right, plant that left gather step, followed by a right step setting down near the left, then either rise for the jumper or use that left foot as the pivot for a pump fake or a step-through with the right foot (the left pivot foot remaining grounded until he rises for a shot or pass). I wonder if the old-timers operated on the assumption that, under those circumstances, their left-foot gather step was their only legal option as a pivot foot, or did they just use it because it was more natural for a righty.

Getting back to that Ginobili game-winner segment, it's fortunate for Nunn his Making the Call colleagues on NBA TV (host Matt Winer and ex-player Steve Smith) did not laugh him off the set. That's because Nunn can pull rank with these non-refs, who in any event are too nice to publicly ridicule their friendly colleague. But what if Nunn had to do that show with Jake O'Donnell, a no-nonsense former ref and an all-time great who officiated far more games in the Finals than Nunn?

Better yet, what if NBA TV developed a backbone and launched a series called Retro Ref, where highly regarded former refs critique past segments of Making the Call and discuss how officiating and the rules have changed over the decades? Which changes have been for the better? Which for the worse? Former players from different eras also could contribute to the discussion. The key to a worthwhile show is to select thoughtful former refs and players who don't work for the NBA in any capacity and thus are free to speak their mind.

The "jump stop equals one step" concept created a flurry of controversy early in the 2011-12 when Rob Mahoney featured a Dwyane Wade game-winner against Charlotte in his "Have Ball, Will Travel" video series. Mahoney was nice enough not to note Wade's left-hand palming violation prior to the alleged travel, which in Mahoney's view was the result of taking a step after coming to a two-footed jump-stop stop. The NBA responded that the no-call was correct because the jump stop (Wade hopped off his right foot and landed simultaneously on both) represented the first of his two allowed steps after picking up his dribble, so that the subsequent step was Wade's legal second step.

Rather than stand his ground, Mahoney accepted the league's correction. At the informative ESPN blog "True Hoop," Kevin Arnovitz congratulated all parties for the civil tone in which they discussed the issue. In my view this is the wrong approach. League bigwigs need to be told in no uncertain terms that their opinions aren't worth considering. When Nunn or some other NBA flunky says that jumping off one foot and landing on two is the equivalent of a single step, the proper response is to laugh in his face — or pat him on the head and give him a lollipop.

Several months ago a "Hardwood Classic" on NBA TV featured Portland vs. Seattle in the 1980 playoffs. O'Donnell whistled Ron Brewer for the same left-hand palm that Wade got away with, and on the replay commentator Bill Russell cackled after seeing how blatant the violation was and how far Brewer traveled while cupping the ball. Today, three-ref crews almost never make this call; 32 years ago, two refs had little trouble spotting the violation. Then again, the NBA now permits "dribbling" the side of the ball, and determining when the hand slips from being on the side of the ball to slightly underneath is a tricky proposition, which refs have solved by pretending not to notice even the obvious violations. (This cupping move, allowing for a stop-and-start motion, may have originated as an NBA gift to Michael Jordan several years into his career. It's something West and Robertson were not permitted — neither would have been crazy enough to attempt it, as the whistle would surely have blown — and it certainly made life easier for Jordan, who without it might have averaged 28.5 on .484 shooting rather than 30.1 on .496 shooting.)

It's quite remarkable that an NBA administration whose mantra is "respect for the game" has so little respect for such basics as what constitutes traveling, dribbling and palming, or the difference between a step and a jump, or the meaning of the words "one" and "two." Of course, what the Stern administration really means by "respect for the game" is "deference to authority" — deference to the refs on the court and the numbskull executives Stern has empowered to interpret and rewrite the rules.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Nothing's more foul than the intentional foul:
The league banned Hack-a-Wilt in 1967. It should ban Hack-a-Dwight today.
What kind of league provides an incentive for low-life coaches to bring brisk, free-flowing games to a screeching halt with intentional fouls? When I become NBA dictator, off-the-ball intentional fouls (and maybe on) will be penalized by giving the fouled team three points. The fouling team gets the ball and play resumes immediately. No fuss, no muss, no free throws stopping play. And, of course, no more intentional fouls.

Commissioner David Stern should have been raising holy hell a dozen years ago, asking why the NBA — the supposed premiere basketball league in the world — can't measure up to the NCAA and other associations that don't tolerate this boring, boorish nonsense. All it takes is a penalty that guarantees the tactic is never attempted.

Way back in 2000, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals a national TV audience was subjected to dreary Mike Dunleavy sending Shaq to the line for 25 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Less than three weeks later, Larry Bird gave his Pacers defense the same vote of no-confidence by sending Shaq to the line a playoffs record 39 times in Game 2 of the Finals. Stern's response three days later? "We're not planning to rush out and enact some Hack-a-Shaq antidote. We've been very slow to rush to make changes in our game."

By the spring of 2012 tortoise Stern was finally willing to consider a change. He cajoled the league's Board of Governors, a.k.a. the owners, who must approve every rule change (because no one knows more about basketball than a bunch of middle-aged and older white dudes who made their millions in some other line of work), to agree to a streamlined Competition Committee, which is the body that makes recommendations to the Board. Instead of the established but unwieldy band of 30 general managers, the committee would be trimmed to a mixed 10-man group. Among other issues such as flopping, Stern encouraged the committee to address off-the-ball intentional fouls and to consider extending to the first 46 minutes of an NBA game the current rule that, in the last two minutes only, gives the fouled team the right to choose any of its five players on the court to shoot one free throw, after which that team retains the ball.

So far, so good. Then Stern made the huge mistake of giving coaches three of the 10 seats. Joining Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Lionel Hollins on the committee was a representative from the Players Association, Keyon Dooling; two owners, Dan Gilbert of Cleveland and Joe Lacob of Golden State; and four general managers, Bryan Colangelo of Toronto, Sam Presti of Oklahoma City, Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers and Kevin O'Connor of Utah. Count me unimpressed.

Left out of the mix were insightful outsiders with an independent perspective. I doubt anyone has written more perceptively or prolifically on improving the game and the officiating that has deteriorated so badly on Stern's watch than I, yet somehow my phone didn't ring. In a sane world, seven of the ten seats would have been reserved for my ilk or of my choosing, drawn from the likes of ex-player deep-thinkers such as Bill Russell, Jim Barnett, Chet Walker and yes, Tommy Heinsohn (superb when he's not wearing his Celtic-homer hat); veteran journalists with good basketball values (e.g., Jack McCallum, Mark Heisler and Bob Ryan); and retired refs who enforced the superior traveling, palming, dislodging, block/charge, moving-pick and face-guarding rules of the 1970s and early 1980s (e.g., Jack Madden and Jake O'Donnell). I'd also consider active coach Rick Adelman, a long-time voice of sanity on fixing the bizarre free-throw rebounding rules and other matters.

I don't know what went on behind closed doors, but I presume the coaches successfully lobbied their Competition Committee colleagues not to deprive them of the right to call attention to their tactical and strategic brilliance.

"It's fair to say there was a strong sense that we shouldn't cut down on the toolbox that coaches have available to them, despite what may seem the unseemliness of the way it goes down," Stern said. "But that's just one of the things that you do if you want to win and it works."

Stern sometimes forgets that one of the most important jobs a commissioner has is to protect the game from coaches. Far too many are win-at-all-costs jerks who don't care squat about the game. That is why the commissioner in the 1950s approved the 24-second shot clock. Yes, that change took something out of the coaches' precious toolbox, but it also put an end to lunatics ordering stalls in hopes of improving their win-loss record even if it meant draining every last ounce of entertainment from the sport. Which is more important?

In 1966-67, Sam Smith reports, Chicago's Johnny "Red" Kerr (a good guy but with at least one jerk-like tendency) became the first known NBA coach to try to win through off-the-ball intentional fouls. His target was Wilt Chamberlain.

"Down six to Philadelphia with about four minutes left," Smith writes, Kerr "called for it and Wilt was fouled away from the ball three times and missed his free throws. Wilt, by far the strongest person in the league and perhaps most sensitive, started running away from the ball, screaming at Bulls players, 'I'll break your nose if you foul me.'" Philly coach Alex Hannum "finally took out Wilt and the 76ers hung on to win, but the league was furious and passed a rule for the next season — since overturned — making the tactic a technical foul."

Now that is the way to run a league, though I wonder if the change wasn't in fact imposed immediately or at least by the start of the playoffs. The 76ers won the crown, and I don't believe there was any off-the-ball intentional fouling, despite Wilt shooting a woeful .388 that postseason. I know of no old-timers (me included) who regret being deprived of seven years (1967-73) of playoff Hack-a-Wilt, five of which ended with him in the Finals.

I don't know when the incentive to commit off-the-ball intentional fouls was reinstated or why on earth the ignoramus(es) thought it was a good idea, but I'd like to know. Rather than have a rule that encourages Avery Johnson, Gregg Popovich, Mark Jackson (who sent Dwight Howard to the line a regular-season record 39 times in a nationally televised game last season) and quite a few others to embarrass opposing big men who struggle at the stripe — and there have always been such players — what the NBA needs is something that gratuitously embarrasses coaches. I'm not sure what that would be, but I'm open to suggestions.

On Dec. 3, Orlando's Jacques Vaughn ordered a batch of off-the-ball intentional fouls against Dwight Howard. The next night, Toronto's Dwane Casey targeted Denver's Javale McGee. The night after that, Houston's Kelvin Sampson targeted Howard. Earlier this season, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks ordered fouls on DeAndre Jordan, and Portland's Terry Stotts got Jordan and Blake Griffin in the same game. Add exciting Pistons rookie Andre Drummond and perhaps others to this season's list. Golden State's Andris Biedrins is a sad shell of his former self in part because of this stupid rule, as noted in a sensitive analysis by Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard.

If the fouling team is at home, many fans in the stands get a sadistic kick from the routine. But hardly any fan who doesn't have a rooting interest in the outcome wants to watch this garbage.

Maybe public-address announcers who don't care for this could say after each intentional foul, "This stoppage of play is proudly presented by David Stern and the wise men of his Competition Committee: Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle, Lionel Hollins, Keyon Dooling, Dan Gilbert, Joe Lacob, Sam Presti, Bryan Colangelo, Kevin O'Connor and Mitch Kupchak." Each guy's photo would be displayed on arena big screens as his name is announced. Broadcasters — many of whom despise Hack-a-Whomever — could do the same.

Incidentally, Kupchak played collegiately for a kook who had to be legislated against: Dean Smith, who fortunately has been a good-deed doer off the court (a champion of civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s, when such a stand generated considerable hostility in North Carolina) to compensate for the harm he's done on it. Though his four-corners stall was mercifully banned, his other sterling innovations — group hugs after every free-throw attempt and five defenders always on the lookout for an opportunity to fall down — have had remarkable staying power.

I don't know if the Competition Committee voted 10-0 to retain off-the-ball intentional fouling for the first 46 minutes of the game, but by shining an unwanted spotlight on its members we'll soon find out if any objected or abstained, and who were the most gung-ho on retaining it.

The one good thing about Hack-a-Whomever is it really pisses off the Hoop Gods, something I wrote about back in 2008. Coaches intent on showing the world just how darn clever they are ended up out of the league or out of luck, with few exceptions. Oh, you don't remember Larry Krystkowiak and Sam Vincent?

Monday, December 03, 2012

Einstein declares Dwight Howard insane
Albert Einstein, widely regarded as one of the smartest cats of all time, is said to have defined "insanity" thusly: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Here is Dwight Howard, after missing 12 of 21 free-throw attempts December 2 in a humiliating Laker loss to his old team, the woeful Orlando Magic: "I'm going to continue to practice," he said. "That's all I can do, is continue to practice and they'll start falling."

Howard has now practiced his way to a career-low .465 from the line, surpassing last season's career low of .491, which surpassed his previous career low (.586 in 2006-07) by a whopping margin.

The poor guy is at his wit's end. Year after year he practices free throws more than anyone else on the planet, regularly making in the vicinity of 80 percent, but rather than seeing this translate to progress in games, he instead has gone from bad to worse. Six seasons of stagnant stinkiness hovering around 59 percent have been followed by last season's free-fall and more of the same in 2012-13.

Is there no one in the Laker organization, his management team or his family who can persuade him that making 80 out of 100 in twenty minutes while a coach or pal tosses you the ball does not make you an 80-percent free-throw shooter? You could just as easily be a 50, 60 or 70 percenter. A guy or gal who shoots 80 percent in games probably makes 85 or 90 in such an artificial, easy-to-succeed setting. This can mask flaws, because it persuades the player there's nothing wrong with his shot. Before he knows it, he's thinking it must be in his head and he's heading for the couch of the nearest sports psychologist.

As I pointed out last week, Howard needs to ask himself just what is it about the way he shoots that makes him such a poor free-throw shooter in games. Why, for instance, is it so easy for him to shoot way long or way short? Why such a wide range on his distance-related misses? And why does a player of such obvious grace and coordination look nothing of the sort at the stripe? The only exception, as I've stated many times (see the links here), was his rookie year, when he shot a career-best .671. He started listening to assistant coaches in Season 2, and he hasn't shot well or looked coordinated at the line since.

Howard also needs to face the fact that just because a retired player shot well doesn't mean he will be of any use as a shooting coach. He should realize this by now, having spent several seasons with Patrick Ewing, an off-season and shortened regular season (2011-12) with Ed Palubinskas (maybe the world's greatest contest shooter at the line and behind the 3-point arc), and that same shortened season with the magnificent Mark Price.

Let's not forget Stan Van Gundy, who shot .859 in college, including a perfect 33 for 33 his sophomore season. He's been a basketball coach his entire adult life, but if he had any useful shooting advice for Howard in their five years together, I haven't heard it and it definitely didn't stick.

Chuck Person, a Laker assistant coach who is Howard's current guiding light, was himself mediocre from the stripe (.723 for his career) despite being a deadly long-range shooter. Person seemed quite pleased with himself this preseason as he outlined the flaws he detected in Howard's form and how he ironed them out. The results have been downright amazing. But only in practice!

Bob McAdoo was, in my opinion, a better mid-range jumpshooter than Dirk Nowitzki. Yet Shaq went from bad to worse in the three-plus seasons they worked together in Miami. As a Laker, Shaq didn't seem to benefit from brief stints working with deadeye Dennis Scott and Magic Johnson (perhaps the most underrated shooter in NBA history), though the .527 career clunker did have a 100-game stretch of 62 percent amidst the three seasons he worked with the aforementioned Palubinskas. That was indispensable to the Lakers 2002 title run, for if Shaq hadn't got red hot with his illegal step-over-the-line delivery, Sacramento would have won the Western Conference Finals and, in all likelihood, the NBA crown.

Neither Price nor Dominique Wilkins, nor head coaches Mike Woodson and Larry Drew — three really good shooters and a great one — have helped the supremely gifted Josh Smith develop a jumpshot or decent stroke at the line. (Price is a former Hawks assistant and Wilkins has been a Hawks executive throughout Smith's nine years in Atlanta.)

What most very good shooters have in common is this: Each knows how his or her shot works. That's really all they need to know as players, and it explains why perennial bricklayers don't improve despite being surrounded every day of their professional life by superb shooters. The sharpshooters around DeAndre Jordan or Andris Biedrins, for example, don't want to mess him up further by offering tips when they don't feel they have a good handle on what's wrong with his shot. So rather than risk making a bad situation worse, they leave it up to the coaching staff to address or ignore his shooting woes.

In conclusion, a former player might or might not make a good shooting coach. But Einstein would consider it insane to assume such would be the case, merely because he or she could light it up back in the day.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

2004 Coaching Awards
An excerpt from an April 2004 hoopshype column:

Phil Jackson: Unflappable. Serene. The calm amid the storm in this stormiest of Laker seasons. Always aware of the big picture and the ultimate goal. It’s no accident that the two best coaches of all time – Jackson and Red Auerbach – are well-rounded, sensitive gents who understand people and have diverse interests outside the game.

Take note, all you nut-case coaches who eat, sleep, live and breathe basketball. Do like Phil: stop and smell the incense. Get away and clear your head, then take a fresh look at your team and your coaching.

As for those other coaching awards . . .

Mister Congeniality: Maurice Cheeks, for getting along with everyone in Portland – even Rasheed Wallace and Ruben Patterson – and reaching the homestretch not only in the playoff hunt, but with his sanity and personality intact.

Evening Wear: Larry Brown, stylin’ and profilin’ in his throwback 1970s formal bib overalls and platform shoes.

Swimsuit: Don Nelson.