Anthony Macri is a contributing author to BasketballProspectus.com and also trains high school, college, and professional basketball players at The Basketball Academy and Pro Training Center at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Anthony can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: The year is 2012 and you've been given front row seats to the Olympic medal ceremony for men's basketball. Will Wade, Lebron, and Bosh be preening, or are the Gasol boys and Rudy Fernandez showing off their new gold jewelry?
AM: Assuming Lebron plays, the USA has to be the prohibitive favorite. He is such a unique player that all bets are off when he has an opportunity to hit the floor. No one in the NBA can guard him, and I would venture to say no one in the world can either. He is the most unique wing player of our generation, even more so than Jordan was. Is he better than Jordan? Not yet. But the fact that we can even have the discussion and not be bordering on the irrational is saying something.
Keep in mind that by 2012 the following players will be entering their physical "prime": Lebron James, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard. That doesn't include Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasely, Greg Oden and the like. Put that group out on the floor in 2012 and the USA should be on top of the world all over again.
Don't think, however, that this takes anything away from the rest of the world. The biggest difference between the USA and the rest of the world is the size and aggressiveness of our guard play. Assuming that stays the case, and the USA can put a team out there with guards that are as quick and athletic as anyone at 6'3, it will be hard for the international community to compete. Spain has the best chance right now, and they could win it all. But the USA is the prohibitive favorite.
Q: In my humble estimation, Paul Pierce's "injury" in game 1 of the NBA Finals was one of the corniest displays I've ever seen in pro hoops. Your take?
AM: Corny is one word for it. However, I think one thing that gets lost in the shuffle of a situation like that is the lack of space and opportunity to treat a player with an injury on an NBA floor. Think of it this way - in a football stadium, a player gets hurt and the stadium falls into a hush. The spectators are, in many cases, at least 50 yards if not 200+ yards away from the injury. They have plenty of space to work on the injured player, and there is no rush to get back to the action. Now consider basketball. No matter where you are on the floor, there are spectators less than 50 feet away (and, in the case of Pierce's injury, he was basically directly on top of spectators). The best way to handle that situation is to remove the injured player from the scene (no matter how dramatic that might be, like having multiple teammates carry him off) and treat him where there is space to diagnose and room to breathe.
That being said, it appears Paul may have been a wee bit caught up in the moment. I think right there and then, he was not looking for but found a great opportunity to give his teammates and the arena a lift. I don't begrudge him for it.
Q: Why is it that Allen Iverson is thought of as "pound for pound," the best player to ever lace them up? Are critics really thinking that if squeezed into AI's 160 lb frame, that Michael Jordan wouldn't be far superior?
AM: Iverson is a pretty special player. He is probably the best shot-maker to enter the league in the last twenty years. I think that the point that folks that propose that pound-for-pound he is the best player ever are making is that if you squeezed MJ into a 6-foot, 160-pound frame, he would no longer be MJ. Keep in mind, part of MJ's greatness was how strong and tall and athletic he was for a guard. Most guards before him were Joe Dumars' or John Starks' size, and Jordan could post them up and abuse them at the rim. Iverson is able to do everything he can despite his height, not because of it. I also think that "pound-for-pound" label has a lot to do with his durability. He continues to crank out productive seasons, in spite of the fact that he is "old" in NBA years and gets bounced around like a pinball most of the time. There is something to be said for that.
Q: Despite a solid start, many pundits are already deeming the Lakers too soft to capture the 2009 title. Is it possible to hoist "Maurice Podoloff's" trophy if you are indeed "soft"? Can you think of a recent champ who was a little bit on the "squishy side," and still won it all?
AM: Personally, I think it is a convenient, and only slightly appropriate, label to stick on a team that we aren't sure why they aren't winning it all. Once a team wins it all, that label goes away. When the Bulls were trying to get past the Pistons back in the early 90s, one of the knocks was that they were soft in comparison. Then, they won, and all of a sudden, no one called them soft anymore. I think the same thing will happen with this Lakers team, should they win it all. Remember, the big critical question regarding the Celtics last year was whether or not they were "too old." Well, the big three didn't get a whole lot younger, but I don't see that question bandied about as much this year. They proved they weren't "too old" and therefore the question doesn't apply.
I also don't think that any team whose leader is Kobe Bryant can be called soft. Let's keep in mind that Kobe played more than half a season, the Olympics, and is now playing again with an injury that really should be operated on. Softness was not the problem in last year's Finals. They ran into a buzz-saw defense with a team of players that, outside of Kobe and Derek Fisher, had never been in that position before. My guess is they perform better this year.
Q: Why is everyone afraid to admit that Greg Oden may very well be a bust? At best, he appears to be Dikembe Mutombo 2.0 (not that Deke was small potatoes, but he certainly was no team's savior). Your call?
AM: I think afraid is the wrong word. Calling a big man who is less than five games into his pro career a bust is a bit presumptuous. First, let's define a bust. Is a bust any center that does not reach the heights of Tim Duncan, Shaq, Dwight Howard, etc.? If so, then bust defines about 95% of the lottery pick centers of the last 20 years. However, I would define bust much more narrowly. Is he proving night in and night out that, excluding injury, he can be a productive player from his position, filling the needs his team? If he can prove that, then he is not at all a bust. If he can't fulfill that goal (see Milicic, Darko), then he can be called a bust. Right now, in four games, he is averaging 7 points and 7 rebounds in just 19 minutes. Extrapolate that out to 36 minutes per game, and it would be a 12 and 12 average. Is that bust-worthy? I hardly think so.
Think of Dwight Howard. In 2004-05 he averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds per game for his rookie season, and in his first ten games of his career, he averaged 7.6 points and just over 10 rebounds. Does that mean that Oden will be as good as Dwight Howard? Not necessarily. But I wouldn't be too quick to throw the "bust" label at him either. He is still a young player, and was playing high school basketball just 18 months ago.
Q: Derrick Rose has had so much early success for the Bulls that I can't help but marvel in the simplicity of Del Negro's offensive schemes. Should more teams run clear-outs ad nauseam?
AM: God I hope not. Coach Del Negro is doing what he knows best, after watching Mike D'Antoni give free reign to Steve Nash for the last few years in Phoenix, he is giving the same freedom to Derrick Rose. Opposing defenses have helped Rose look really good, not helping and forcing him to finish (which is more than willing and able to do). However, this does create situations where Rose is not making his teammates better (through no fault of his own).
I actually think incorporating some movement into the half-court would help the rest of the Bulls find scoring opportunities. Right now, they are catch and shoot players or catch and jab-series players. They are all too ready to become the former, and none are too good at being the latter. By having them circle behind and cut on Rose's drives, it would create driving lanes and attack angles.
If the Bulls went too much to clear-outs, their offense would start to look like the death trap in Cleveland for the last few years, where we all marveled at how good Lebron is but shuddered at the thought of a bad night of shooting by the King. The same will happen with Derrick Rose if Coach Del Negro goes too far down that path.
Q: What NBA fundamental is often over-preached yet sadly underutilized?
AM: If I had to pick one, and I think there are several, but if I had to pick one, it would be help defense. There are a myriad to choose from (passing, mid-range shooting, effective rebounding, hustle), but help defense is one that I think we can all recognize pretty clearly. Watch the Boston Celtics. A few games ago, I watched them take on the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. They were committed to being in help positions, they recovered to their men, they rotated as needed, their communication was excellent, and they essentially stifled the Bulls completely. There is no special scheme that Coaches Doc Rivers and Thom Thibodeau are using-it is basic half-court defense used by at least 20 of the 30 NBA teams-but they execute it with such energy, precision, and intensity, that it is almost laughable to watch them and then watch another team attempt to execute the same thing. Every team talks about help defense as a fundamental concept of play, but very few actually use it.
Q: More painful for Mark Cuban: trading Jason Kidd for Devin Harris or the possible fine for alleged insider trading?
AM: If it is a choice between those two things, I think trading Kidd for Harris will be more painful to Cuban than the fine for insider trading. However, if you asked me whether that trade was more painful or the public allegation itself, I would probably go with the allegation. Mark Cuban is a guy that presents himself as a good, solid person. He can be a little crazy in support of his team, but good for him, he's earned it. This allegation, even if it proves to be false, sullies his reputation in a pretty significant way.
I like Devin Harris as a player, so I do think it was a bad trade, in the sense that he was not going to get the Jason Kidd of yesteryear. I think with his flair for the dramatic, however, Cuban would consider doing it again.
Q: The recent passing of Pete Newell was a true tragedy. Just how big of an influence did he have on the NBA and most notably, its big men?
AM: I'm not sure we can quantify the kind of impact that Newell had on the game of basketball. Obviously, Pete Newell's Big Man Camp was a household name around the homes of anyone that followed the NBA with more than a passing interest, and for good reason. A master of footwork, Newell revolutionized the way that bigs played the game. He taught the "rocker" step, a series of jabs and shot fakes, in a way that is still utilized today, and he put some of the sizzle into playing in the post. At least as big as his contribution to the players themselves were his commitment to coaching and the game itself. As a coach who trains and develops players, Newell's influence, both through those he taught directly and through his tapes and videos, are a treasure trove of basketball knowledge.
Q: Anyone can predict the NBA champs for this year, so let's be a little different. Which teams will win in 2010, 2011, and 2012 (throw in their MVP for extra brownie points)?
AM: Now that is an interesting, and challenging, question. Obviously, this assumes teams will be injury free and that free agency won't get in the way of major personnel changes.
I have seen enough from Cleveland to think that they have as good a shot as any to win it all in 2010, with Lebron as MVP. Assuming he stays in Cleveland, I'd say the same for 2011. In 2012, however, the championship swings back to the west as the Lakers win it in Kobe's final season. The MVP that year, however, is not Kobe. It is Lebron again.