Tag Archives: San Antonio Spurs

Baiting Draymond Green: Overlooked in wake of Kawhi Leonard injury, Game 1 technical was foul

Referee Marc Davis got the call right on the biggest play of the 2017 playoffs so far: the “slide under” close-out foul by Warriors center Zaza Pachulia that re-injured Kawhi Leonard‘s bum left ankle, which Leonard had tweaked just 1:50 earlier. At least one of Davis’ bosses was watching — Senior VP of replay and referee operations Joe Borgia, who noted on his “Making the Call” NBA-TV segment Sunday that “the referee, luckily, stayed on the play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”

The play will surely stand in history, the video shared endlessly around the internet, as the point where the underdog Spurs lost any chance of winning this Western Conference Finals series against the Warriors. Pachulia’s “dangerous” foul will be remembered, and replays will show what Borgia and other NBA officiating execs strive for — an NBA referee unassumingly doing his job, signalling the call, getting it right. The guys in the light grey shirts look good on the most-watched video of the 2017 playoffs.

Very few will remember the call Davis made just 33 seconds before Leonard was injured.

Referee Marc Davis calls a technical foul on Draymond Green in the 3rd quarter of Game 1 of the Spurs-Warriors Western Conference Finals, 5/14/17. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson. Licence: Standard non-commercial use.

It was an innocuous enough play, and the Warriors’ Draymond Green is probably still wondering what he did to deserve the technical foul Davis called on him. Spurs guard Danny Green had fumbled the ball near the Spurs bench and Draymond was on him, digging at it, making sure he couldn’t recover. The ball went out of bounds off Danny Green, Warriors ball.

The D. Green in question clapped his hands once, let out a yell and looked downcourt toward the Warriors bench, hoping to energize his team. The turnover was the first empty possession for the Spurs in the 2nd half. The Warriors were down 20 and needed an emotional lift, on defense, especially, and Green, the emotional leader of the team, was trying to provide just that when Davis T-ed him up before he could inbound the ball.

“Maybe on the bend-over …” ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy tried to offer an explanation but paused. “Taunting?” it was suggested. …”I don’t know,” Van Gundy decided. Nobody else seemed to know either, and the boo-birds at the Oracle arena in Oakland circled for a moment and then flocked to Davis. They always find him, it seems, in Milwaukee, Houston, Oakland; the city doesn’t matter, they’re there. Sometimes he seems to invite them in.

Davis and those technical fouls

The technical issued to Green was the 8th individual technical foul Davis has called in his last five games. No other individual techs were called in those games. There was the team defensive three seconds Tony Brothers penalized the Raptors for in Milwaukee, but in those five playoff games, Davis was the only referee calling any Ts on players.

The NBA average over the last two seasons is about three technicals called per four games, according to figures published by The Sporting News in an article on NBA referee policies. The eight called by Davis in his last five games is more than double (2.13 times) the NBA average.

If the league sees this as a problem (and nobody’s saying it does), NBA officiating operations hasn’t responded in kind. Quite the opposite, in fact: Davis has been promoted twice since the 5-game technical streak began, first to advance to the semifinals officiating pool, and last weekend to the conference finals pool of 20 officials.

So here Davis was, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, interrupting an awesome display of hot shooting by both teams to open the 2nd half — 29 combined points in the first eight possessions of the half — to issue a technical foul on Draymond Green for, apparently, being Draymond Green.

Baiting Draymond Green?

Much about Game 1 has been overlooked in light of Leonard’s injury, which occurred on the Spurs next possession following the technical on Green. But Davis’ technical on Green was a huge call at a time when, 1) not only were the Spurs and Warriors putting on an incredible show of net-scorching shooting, but 2) the Warriors were trying to build some momentum to get back in the game. The call interrupted the flow of the game to draw the attention of everyone watching from the brilliant play on the court to the officiating, to Davis and Green. It’s still not clear why, or what Green did, but Davis’ call may yet be subject an ordinance violation in Alameda County.

The importance of Green being the transgressor should not be lost on anybody. Green has, to say the least, a fiery temperament, and his flagrant foul suspension in last season’s NBA Finals cost the Warriors dearly in their quest to repeat as champions. He plays the game with emotions fully charged. The Warriors feed off Green’s energy, and he is unquestionably the leader of the Warriors defense (the No. 2 rated D in the league behind the Spurs’).

The toxic byproducts of Green’s full tilt approach to the game are technical fouls — he had 16 during the season, the most of his career, and six flagrant fouls, according to ESPN stats. But while Green exceeded the flagrant foul points limit in last season’s playoffs, he has not accumulated any this post-season. The technical issued by Davis was the 2nd on Green in the 2017 playoffs (the first was in Utah, May 6), well under the limit of seven allowed before an automatic one-game suspension kicks in.

The only risk for Green being called for a tech in Game 1 was the good chance that his next emotional outburst would be a second violation, and he’d be ejected from the game. Down 20 in the 3rd quarter to a team that won 61 games during the regular season, the Warriors could ill afford to lose him. They needed Green’s emotional energy to drive a comeback, and here Davis had given Green a technical for doing just that, providing a burst of energy on defense and showing emotion for the benefit of his team and the home crowd.

Davis had hit Draymond Green with a technical foul for being Draymond Green and, given his officiating track record in these playoffs, because he was Marc Davis.

It was bad refereeing, or worse — it could be construed as an official “baiting” a player, in this case an emotionally charged player indispensable to his team. Davis would call four personal fouls on Green in Game 1, plus the technical, shades of the game-long drama between Davis and Rockets star James Harden in Houston May 5. Green, to his credit, didn’t respond by escalating the situation (in contrast to how Harden handled, or was handled by, Davis’ officiating in Houston) and ended up playing nearly 37 minutes and making key defensive plays for the Warriors in crunch time.

Though the technical — and Davis’ focus on Green — did not turn out to be a major factor in the outcome of the game, this was the kind of officiating nonsense that gives the NBA a bad reputation, turns fans off and gives rise to all sorts of crazy theories about the league’s underlying motivations — just the sort of thing commissioner Adam Silver is trying to get away from in the new era of post-David Stern transparency.

Yet in all likelihood, Davis will be promoted again to work the NBA Finals, just as he was last season and the season before that; and this season from the first round to the semifinals and now the conference finals. Yes, there are new initiatives on the way, and NBA Official claims to track every call and hold officials to “the most rigorous standards in all of sports” (see ref. notes). Yet there appear to be no consequences for bad officiating beyond the public embarrassment of having missed calls labelled “incorrect” in one of the league’s “Last Two Minute Reports”.

For what it’s worth, one of the refereeing initiatives underway is a “newly created postgame survey process for coaches to share officiating feedback.” Steve Kerr and the Warriors should use it. They have major cause to file a complaint regarding the technical foul, and the general “over-policing” of Green during Game 1.

Too many whistles: Game 1 officiating sketch

Spurs-Warriors Game 1 was in many ways, a difficult game to watch. The Warriors weren’t themselves coming out of a six day layoff following their sweep of the Jazz. Klay Thompson had a lousy shooting day (2 for 11). They turned the ball over six times in the opening quarter. The Spurs nearly matched them with five turnovers of their own. (Official scorer’s report).

The referees contributed to the off-key nature of the game by calling 48 personal fouls, about eight more than the both the NBA season and playoff averages. Pau Gasol was victimized the most (a rare day) and has been outplayed by Pachulia in the series (another rare thing — Zaza has enjoyed a nice second life in the NBA since leaving Atlanta a few years ago). When did Zaza Pachulia become a better player than Pau Gasol?

The officials for the game were led by crew chief Dan Crawford, the senior official in the league (in his 32nd season and 29th playoff) who last worked with Davis May 5 in Houston. Davis was 2nd official. Third official Tom Washington has not worked a game since officiating with Davis May 2 in Boston for Game 2 of Wizards-Celtic, in which 50 personal fouls were called. The makeup of this crew seems like it may have been a “chemistry and composition” effort by the NBA to pair Davis (the bane of home teams) and Washington (a 65% homer this season) with Crawford, who likes to control a game — and that’s just what Crawford did in Oakland.

Source: Official Scorers Report, Spurs vs. Warriors, 5/14/17.

As you can see, the calls were even for the game, with an advantage to the Warriors through the 3rd quarter, then shifting to the Spurs in the 4th quarter, when neither Washington nor Davis called a foul on the Spurs. This coincided with the flow of the game, too obvious to be good officiating. This was a prickly officiating crew, with bad calls, touch fouls and the nonsense technical on the Warriors’ Green giving the refs a larger-than-necessary presence throughout.

  • Crawford called 21 fouls for the game, well more than the average (about 13 or 14) and tops in the four 2017 playoff games I’ve surveyed.
  • Crawford takes the lead in the 1st quarter, setting the tone with five fouls while the other two whistles are quiet.
  • 17 personal fouls called in the 2nd quarter was quite the barrage — 9 on the Warriors and 8 on the Spurs while the Warriors were trying to stay in the game. Made for some difficult basketball, and difficult viewing.
  • Gasol’s first two fouls came in the 1st quarter and he went to the bench. This quickly turned into lucky misfortune for the Spurs due to the brilliant first half David Lee played.
  • 3rd foul on Gasol a questionable call by Crawford at 5:18 in the 2nd quarter. “That’s a tough call,” said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. Gasol was discombobulated the rest of the game, played only 16 minutes. His line: 5 points, 2 rebs, 5 fouls. Enter David Lee.
  • Davis finished the game with an 11-4 disparity in favor of the Spurs, made less remarkable by Washington’s 9-4 disparity the other way, which was actually better than the 12-5 disparity in favor of the Celtics the last game Washington worked.
  • Davis, despite his handling of Green, which seems to be something of a dramatic trend with Davis, was not the worst official in the game. Crawfords 21 fouls called were too many, too often, and too “touch-foul”.

Too many whistles marred this game. The Spurs on average in the playoffs had been called for just 18.2 personal fouls per game prior to Game 1; the Warriors average was 19.6. The combined 37.8 avg. makes the 48 personal fouls called just a bit more outrageous. This was not the Wizards vs. the Celtics, two teams in need of parental supervision in their series.

The Spurs (103.5 D-rating) and the Warriors (104.0 D-rating) are the elite defensive teams in the NBA, with the Warriors NBA-leading offense in need of no introduction and the Spurs in the top 10 in scoring efficiency. Coming into the series, it certainly looked like a classic match-up filled with future Hall of Famers and current All-Pros, and an MVP candidate (Leonard).

There was no need to muck up the basketball with so many whistles. One could say the refs didn’t have a good handle on the action or the teams, and were somewhat disrespectful to the game itself by, at times, becoming bigger than the game. The fault here probably lies with Crawford, the crew chief and senior official in the NBA, in his 32nd season and 29th playoff.

Game 2 of the series, refereed by Ed Malloy, Ken Mauer and Kane Fitzgerald saw only 36 personal fouls called and no technical fouls on either team. Imagine that.

Source-erole

Source for season stats, playoff stats, player links and advanced stats is basketball-reference.com. Source for all game stats are the Official Scorer’s Reports found NBA.com at the bottom of Associated Press “recaps”. The NBA has responded to this series with only stock “fan relations” PR quoted above, and to point to the March 2 announcement of new officiating initiatives at http://pr.nba.com/nba-officiating-initiatives/

  • ABC Broadcast, Game 1, w/ Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson
  • NBA-TV, “Making the Call w/ Joe Borgia”, 5/14/17: http://official.nba.com/making-the-call-may-14-2017/
  • Full quote from Borgia: Joe Borgia, Senior VP of NBA Replay and Referee Operations. “We see this quite often in the NBA where that defender they just go a little bit too far, and you’re not allowed to take the landing area away from a shooter. Obviously a very dangerous situation for players, and the referee, luckily, stayed on that play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”
  • The Sporting News, NBA technical foul trends, 12/8/2016: http://www.sportingnews.com/nba/news/referees-policy-technical-fouls-ejections-nbra-adam-silver-bob-delaney/5bxteydvb19i1bxnomhbnd0l6
  • Technical foul points system, 2016 report: http://www.nba.com/2016/news/features/steve_aschburner/06/12/draymond-green-suspension-could-spark-changes-in-point-system/
  • NBA.com, “Draymond Green Walking the Fine Line”, 4/13/17: http://www.nba.com/article/2017/04/13/draymond-green-walking-line-fine-line-redemption-golden-state-warriors
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/17, “Green gets 1st technical”: http://www.sfgate.com/warriors/article/Warriors-Green-gets-1st-technical-foul-of-11127427.php
  • Draymond Green career stats, ESPN: http://www.espn.com/nba/player/stats/_/id/6589/draymond-green
  • Associated Press “Business Insider”, 2016 finals pre-game wire: http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-the-latest-green-aware-of-technicals-mum-on-the-topic-2016-6

The Bruce Bowen File, 10 years later: The incredible hypocrisy of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was “not a happy camper” Monday morning, having lost Kawhi Leonard, a 23-point 3rd quarter lead and Game 1 to the Golden State Warriors and center Zaza Puchulia, whose close-out defense on a Leonard 3-pointer caused Leonard to re-injure his bad ankle. So on Monday Popovich attacked Pachulia in the media, calling the play “unsportsmanlike”, “dangerous”, “unnatural” and leveled charges that Zaza has a history of dirty play.

“Follow-up questions?” Popovich asked, after his rant.  Apparently, none of the assembled with ipods and other recording devices thought to mention Popovich’s old defensive “specialist”, Bruce Bowen, the subject of controversy a decade ago about exactly the same type of illegal “step under” or “slide under” defense Pachulia used against Leonard.

Popovich had this to say back in 2006 when the NBA warned Bowen about Bowen’s crowding close-outs and the sprained jump shooter ankles that he sometimes caused.

“The people who cry about it are just frustrated about having to go against Bruce,” Popovich said in 2006, and complained that league officials were “trying to change the way my best defender plays.”

There was a reason for that. Bowen was as dirty as they come, and made it all too obvious that the shifting or “sliding” of his lead foot into a shooter’s landing space was an intentional defensive move meant to wreak an ankle or few, as you’ll see in this video.

Popovich went even further defending Bowen, and took a defiant stance toward the league directive on Bowen (from VP of NBA basketball operations Stu Jackson) and the efforts to clean up the game.

“The league is just trying to cover its ass,” Popovich said. “I told Bruce, ‘You be Bruce Bowen. You’re the best (expletive) defender in this league. You will NOT change the way you play defense.'” Bowen, when asked, said he was going to ignore what Stu Jackson and the league had told him, and do what his coach told him: “I’ve been given a command, so I’m going to keep playing hard.”

“Pop” and Bowen basically told the league to (expletive) off, a shame considering the bigger picture. The era in which Popovich and his Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio won their first three NBA championships (2003-07) was an ugly era for the NBA — no Michael Jordan (for the most part); bigger, stronger players lacking in fundamental skills; the “Malice in the Palace” in Detroit; a feuding Shaq and Kobe; a referee betting scandal; slow, “dead-ball” pacing; one-on-one isolation offenses and low offensive ratings; and even lower TV ratings — the lowest since the league was young, if not the lowest in NBA history. The defense that Bowen played was part of the ugliness, and Popovich’s defense of it was just one of the league’s many problems.

It would culminate in the months following the Spurs’ rebuke of the league, in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns and reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash. Bowen kneed Nash in the groin early in the series and was not suspended. Suns players accused both Bowen and Manu Ginobili of being dirty players. And — ten years ago the day of Leonard’s injury in Game 1 — Spurs’ forward Robert Horry hockey-checked Nash hard into the scorers table in the final seconds of Game 4, igniting a good scuffle on the court.

Defying all common sense and with the series tied 2-2, the NBA suspended Horry for two games, and two Suns for Game 5 — All-Pro big man Amar’e Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw. Stoudemire and Diaw were not in the fray but had “left the immediate bench area” during the pushing and shoving on the court.

Popovich was less than contrite in 2007 about the dirty play of his team. “It was an end of the game foul,” he shrugged, pausing for effect. “And Steve fell down. I didn’t think it was such a big deal.”

Ten Years Ago to the Day

The historical symmetry here is too good, and if you made this stuff up, nobody would believe it. Ten years ago on this day, May 16, ESPN and other media were spinning about the wrongheaded suspensions of the Suns players and wondering that commissioner David Stern’s league had failed yet again, and now seemed incapable of levying even a simple suspension. The Spurs went on to win the Suns series and championship No. 4 in the Popovich era, sweeping a 22-year-old Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavs in the finals, a series watched by few. The 2007 NBA Finals was a an unqualified ratings dud, the first time since nearly every household in America had a television that fewer than 10 million people watched the finals. Dark times toward the end of a Dark Age for the NBA.

The league has come a long way since then, led first by the renewal of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry and then Lebron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant; and now by James, Steph Curry and other players — Kawhi Leonard — along with a change of style and a new commissioner, Adam Silver. The pace has picked up, the ball moves more quickly on offense, sometimes with astounding precision, and the game has opened up. It’s not all for the better, but much of the strong-arm play of the 1990s and 2000s is a thing of the past — though Popovich and Pachulia and the Celtics-Wizards series have taken us back there for a visit. Zaza may not be able to help it — it’s when and where he’s from as a pro basketball player.

Zaza Pachulia is a down and dirty tough guy in the NBA, a squarish, slow-footed big man who passes well, doesn’t shoot much and makes up for his lack of athleticism by using his strength and low center of gravity to advantage; by making the right cuts without the ball; and by playing hard-nosed basketball, including the occasional nastiness. “You don’t mess with Zaza,” is a rule of thumb his fans and teammates in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State have enjoyed and opponents hated.

Pachulia was drafted as a 19-year-old in 2003, and is very much a product of that ugly era of NBA basketball, including the inherent dirty defense. He would have fit in well on the Spurs of the mid-2000s.

If one comes away with any conclusions watching video of Bruce Bowen stepping under jump shooters, note that there is a technique to it, in Bowen’s case more of a step than a “slide” of the right foot forward as the shooter descends from his shot. ESPN TV and radio analyst Jalen Rose, who played in the NBA 1995-2007, fully admitted on “SportCenter” after the Spurs-Warriors Game 1 broadcast that he had used the step-under on Kobe Bryant in the 2000 Finals, when Rose was starting for the Pacers and tasked with guarding the Lakers star. “If [Kobe] sprains his ankle, we win the championship,” Rose said.

There’s no question it’s a dirty play, despised by shooters and employed by the worst hacks on any team at any level of basketball (sorry, Jalen), guys like Bowen who don’t possess great skill but work hard and do the dirty work coaches like Popovich love and encourage.

Zaza Pachulia steps to Kevin Garnett in the 2008 playoffs. License: Standard noncommercial use.

Pachulia was a young, developing player of limited offensive abilities in the mid-2000s, and would certainly have put the Bowen “step under” technique in his defensive toolbox, knowing that dirty work and the occasional dirty play could lead to more playing time in a league where playing time is hard to come by. Zaza had been on three different teams by the time he was 21 and found a home in Atlanta, where he played for eight seasons.

Judging by the play that caused Leonard’s injury, Zaza’s technique is as good or better than than Bowen’s was, as Zaza did a very convincing job of selling his footwork as accidental, a little clumsy even. Try that on any playground or gym in America and you better be ready for a fight, or, in the very least, to defend yourself aggressively.

So do we take Popovich and Pachulia seriously?  Of course not.  Popovich is a win by any means necessary coach, a quality revered by fawning sports media types. By attacking Zaza in the press, Popovich is trying to gain an edge, any edge he can against the Warriors, the better team over the last three years and big favorites to win the series before Leonard went down (Leonard will miss Game 2 of the Series and is questionable for Game 3). He’s doing his job in the aftermath of Leonard’s injury, whether or not his hypocrisy flies in the face of the great basketball the Warriors usually play. Call it a “Popocrisy”.

As for Pachulia, It’s not the first time anybody accused him of being dirty; it comes with the dirty work role he’s occupied in his career. Ask Nikola Mirotic of the Bulls, who got into it with Zaza in the 2015 playoffs. Mirotic was largely absent from that 1st Round series against the Bucks following this incident:

For fans and players alike, for the NBA itself, we’ve all come full circle in ten years, back to a season (2006-07) when the “slide under” was hotly debated and Popovich’s dirty work defender was being fairly singled out. Popovich isn’t apologizing for the three championships he won with Bowen as his starting small forward, nor has he loaned his 2007 ring to Nash for walk-around purposes.

The league was and is a willing accomplice. The NBA might have outlawed the “slide under” ten years ago by invoking harsher penalties, but that didn’t happen. It’s considered a shooting foul, no more no less. As Sports Illustrated pointed out above a May 15 column by Ben Golliver, “blame the NBA, not the Warriors” for Leonard’s injury.

The Warriors may not be to blame, but Puchulia certainly is. Blame him. Better still, blame Popovich, too, and know that there are some Phoenix Suns fans out there getting a pretty big kick out of all this. #popocrisy

Source list:

  • Washington Post, 5/15/15, “Greg Popovich lights into Zaza”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2017/05/15/gregg-popovich-lights-into-zaza-pachulia-for-play-that-injured-kawhi-leonard/?utm_term=.118e51bdf697
  • MySA.com, “Spurs Popovich says league crossed line with Bowen” 11/18/2006: https://web.archive.org/web/20080612112118/http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/basketball/nba/spurs/stories/MYSA111806.05C.BKNspurs.notebook.38e2352.html
  • TV By the Numbers, “NBA Finals ratings”: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/sports/nba-finals-tv-ratings-1974-2008/
  • NBA Finals TV Ratings wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NBA_Finals_television_ratings
  • NBA on Television, wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Basketball_Association_on_television
  • The New York Times, “Suspensions Have Suns Crying Foul”, 5/16/07: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/sports/basketball/16suns.html
  • Sports Illustrated column 5/15/2017: https://www.si.com/nba/2017/05/15/nba-playoffs-warriors-spurs-kawhi-leonard-zaza-pachulia-slide-under
  • NBA Official, “Making the Call”, 5/14/2017: http://official.nba.com/
  • NBA.com News, “Leonard to sit out Game 2”, other updates.

NBA promotes referee Marc Davis again – he’ll work Spurs-Warriors Game 1

He’s baack. NBA official Marc Davis.

Screw the Bucks in Milwaukee, throw out the rule book on flagrant fouls in Boston, get into it with James Harden in Houston, incite the home crowd in each city and get promoted to officiate in the NBA Conference Finals.

That was one message sent by the NBA today (May 14) when it released the list of officials for today’s Game 1 of the Spurs-Warriors Western Conference Finals in Oakland: Official Marc Davis is assigned to work the game with refs Dan Crawford and Tom Washington.

An hour before the game, NBA Official posted its conference finals pool of 20 officials. Davis made the cut despite, in three games worked April 27-May, actually doing all those things mentioned in the lead paragraph. This raises some questions about whether the evaluation process for playoff officials touted by the league amounts to anything but press releases and blog posts at NBA Official. Those questions can wait until after the Spurs-Warriors game.

Crawford, the NBA’s most experienced official — 32 years on the job — will be the crew chief. Crawford was crew chief in the last game officiated by Davis, May 5 in Houston for Spurs-Rockets Game 3. The 3rd official is Washington, who last refereed Game 2 of the Celtics-Wizards series in Boston May 2, with Davis as crew chief. This crew combines 77 seasons and 61 playoffs of NBA officiating experience. Seniority counts, obviously.

The mix of referees for today’s (May 14) game is interesting to say the least. While Davis had a visiting team win rate of 54% in games he worked this season and seems to have a habit of inciting the home team’s crowds, Washington trends the other way and had a 65% home team win rate in 2016-17, according to referee stats at basketball-reference.com. The home teams won 58% of the regular season games this season. Crawford’s in the middle, just 3% off the average. The NBA seems to have put some thought into the make-up of this crew. Maybe not, but they did issue a press release March 2 about a host of officiating initiatives, including plans to give more weight to the chemistry of its referee crews when assigning them.

In any case, Davis hasn’t worked since he incited the Houston crowd in Game 3 of Rockets-Spurs by making a couple of bizarre calls against the Rockets, which were contrasted by whistles few and far between against the Spurs (Spurs center Pau Gasol, didn’t pick up a foul until the 4th quarter, hard to believe). As the game wore on Davis engaged in an ongoing debate with James Harden over the injustice of things, which ended in the 4th quarter when hit Harden with a technical foul for arguing. He dispensed another T to Rockets guard Patrick Beverly before game’s end, bringing his technical fouls-called total in his last four games to seven in all. No other official working those games issued a single technical foul.

On the other hand, Davis didn’t issue a flagrant foul to the Wizards’ Markieff Morris after Morris threw Al Horford into the photographers row along the sidelines in Game 2 in Boston May 2,  In that game, Washington served as a counter balance to Davis, with his whistle blowing 12 times against the Wizards and only 5 on the Celtics. The Celtics enjoyed an overall 29-21 personal fouls disparity in their favor and won the game in OT.

Davis’ officiating in Raptors-Bucks Game 6 in Milwaukee belonged in the realm of the absurd, as the Bucks were denied a Game 7 in no small part due to the officiating. He called 0 fouls on the Raptors through the first three quarters despite how bad that looks, and then blew two calls early in the 4th quarter, leading to a rare technical on Bucks coach Jason Kidd (called by Davis) and another outraged reaction from the home crowd.

The NBA also ruled in its Last Two Minutes (LTM) Report on the Raptors-Bucks game that Davis and crew chief Tony Brothers missed a rather obvious shooting foul (Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled by Patrick Patterson) with the game tied at 82. Unfortunately, those LTMs are more for the public and the media than for the evaluation of referees, the accountability of referees being a nebulous thing that may or may not exist.

On the bright side, today’s game is Game 1 of the Spurs-Warriors series. Nobody’s being eliminated from the playoffs today.

More than a Slap on the Wrist, Part 3: Referee Marc Davis vs. James Harden in Houston

The boos began as a smattering but became a steady chorus, raining down on the officials and the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard as he stepped to the free throw line with 10 seconds to go in the 1st half of Friday night’s Spurs-Rockets game in Houston. It wasn’t this shooting foul on Ryan Anderson that the Rockets fans were booing, or Leonard, really. It was a culmination of calls and non-calls made and not made in the 2nd quarter by the referees — five on the Rockets and two of them on star James Harden — but not a single call against the Spurs by refs Marc Davis and Brian Forte.

This foul putting Leonard on the line was called by Forte. It wasn’t a terrible call. There was contact, not a lot, but enough, as Leonard pulled up for a jumpshot.  But the Rockets hadn’t been getting calls like this, hell no, and Harden had been attacking the Spurs defense most of the half. And so the boos began. Although Forte had made the call, Harden approached Davis. It was Davis who had called two fouls on Harden, his 2nd and 3rd of the game, the last one on an odd, awkward play with 5:18 to go before halftime as Harden was shooting a three. Spurs center Pau Gasol had moved into Harden as The Beard shot, exaggerating his follow through to ensure that he got the call. But he hit Gasol in the head with his off hand, and Davis didn’t like it. An unlikely offensive foul on Harden. Harden couldn’t believe the call then, and didn’t still, so it was Davis whom Harden approached now as Leonard shot his free throws and the boos rained down.

James Harden pleads his case to official Marc Davis during Game 3 of the Spurs-Rockets series Friday night in Houston, May 5, 2017. USA Today photo.  Licence: Standard noncommercial purpose.

Davis, the official who was the bane of home teams during the 2016-17 season, had done it again. He had the Houston crowd’s attention, Harden made sure of that in walking over to him. He had the players’ attention — the player as far as the Rockets go — and he had the focus of the cameras, ESPN’s and those on photographer’s row. He was part of the show, the character the fans love to hate, a foil written in to draw out the best and worst of the show’s stars. Not the ideal part, no, but no minor role by any means, and for the moment the man at the center of it all. Forte might not have been in the building as far as the Rockets crowd in Houston was concerned.

While Harden pleaded his case to Davis, the ESPN broadcast team decided to help him out. They ran a series of low-lights showing Harden driving through the lane, taking hits from Gasol and other defenders but coming up empty. Harden wants the call on every drive to the basket, and in this game he is determined. Instead of retreating, he advances, demanding an official response. He’s put Davis on the spot in front of a hostile home crowd, precisely the place where Davis wants to be, based on the trend that emerges in games he referees.

During the season, the visiting teams had a 35-30 record in games Davis officiated, a 54% win rate, a remarkable thing in a league where the home teams have won about 60% of the games, historically. The visitors fared better than the league average when Davis worked their games in 10 of the last 14 seasons, though never quite like this season, where the divergence from the norm was a whopping 24.4%.

It hasn’t worked out that way in the playoffs so far, largely due to the Round 1 mismatches and the NBA not scheduling Davis to officiate a contender on the road until the Spurs-Rockets game (whether the Spurs remain a contender without injured Tony Parker is the question of this series). The Bucks on April 27 in Milwaukee were the first home team of these playoffs to fall with Davis as the ref. (See “More than a Slap on the Wrist (Part 1)“) The Wizards nearly had a road win with Davis as crew chief May 2 in Boston, but 2nd official Rodney Mott bailed the Celtics out by putting Isaiah Thomas on the line to tie the game with 14 seconds left. The Celtics won in overtime.

Friday night in Houston, Harden and the Rockets were the home team feeling a pattern of injustice from Davis. Harden took the bait, and as the game wore on Davis drew more and more of the Beard’s attention, culminating in a technical foul on Harden in the 4th Quarter. Davis is notably more approachable for the players than many of the league’s longtime officials (Davis is in his 19th NBA season), a practice that helps build the drama for the spectator, but doesn’t do the protesting player much good.

“He’s cool as they come, but he’s so arrogant,” one player said in an anonymous survey the LA Times conducted during the 2015-16 season to find the best and worst officials of the NBA. Davis was named one of the three worst. “He instigates things sometimes. Marc will go back at a player. He forgets that he’s talking to another man. Don’t challenge a man’s manhood. Now you are going too far.”

Davis is “hands down the worst,” another player said. “He acts likes he’s your friend, but he’ll just screw you. He’ll screw you and he’ll get the biggest attitude about it.”

While Harden and the 3rd-worst referee in the NBA engaged in ongoing debate about how the game was being officiated, Forte was the ref making most of the calls against the Rockets. Whatever Harden was saying, it wasn’t helping. Entering the 4th quarter, none of the three officials had bothered to call a foul on Spurs center Gasol; and Harden had the same number of fouls (3) as Spurs stars Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Gasol combined.

Below is the breakdown of the calls in the game. Note that the average number of fouls called per team per game this season was about 20, and this has held true in the playoffs.

Source: NBA.com, official play-by-play, Spurs-Rockets Game 3, 2017-05-05.

For the game, we see five personal fouls fewer than the league average (20 per team), not including the technical fouls Davis called on Harden and Beverley in the 4th quarter when the Rockets players frustrations with Davis flared, all negotiations failed. Other key points:

  • The Spurs 17 fouls were below even their average of 18.3 per game.
  • Forte, in his 10th NBA season, saw only two fouls on the Spurs through 36 minutes of play. No, not as bad as Davis was in Milwaukee (not a single Raptor foul called by Davis in the first 36:52 of the game), but a 9 to 4 disparity suggests a rather one-sided view of the action.
  • Danny Crawford, a 32-year veteran who was named the best ref in the NBA in the LA Times survey, set an odd tone at the start of the game by taking two Rockets’ fast break baskets points off the scoreboard and calling a blocking foul on Patrick Beverley behind the play. He then put his whistle away, using it just twice more in the half.
  • Crawford called the first fouls on all three Spurs stars, Leonard, Aldridge and finally Gasol in the 4th. If the officiating “game plan” was to “let them play” and not call touch fouls, it certainly worked for the Spurs.
  • Davis was the most balanced in his calls, though most of them were called on the Spurs bench players and role players such as Danny Green and Dejounte Murray. The Davis-Harden story was about the non-calls as much as it was about the calls, and the three fouls on Harden in the first half.

The Spurs were the No.1 rated defense in the league this season (103.5 pts allowed/100 possessions). If the refs are letting them play their physical, constant pressure defense with less scrutiny than even their usual low foul rate, they’re very difficult to beat, and it’s bound to frustrate the opposition. The Rockets, with the Spurs defense in their grills, didn’t shoot well enough to win this game or any game (36.4% a team), though Harden himself did (14-28, 43 pts).

James Harden protests one of the two fouls referee Marc Davis called on him in the 2nd quarter of the Spurs-Rockets Game 3 in Houston, May 5, 2017. Photo by Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle.  License: Standard noncommercial purpose

Yet despite the focus on the referees that clings to this game like a lingering doubt, it was all eminently watchable. The Spurs would go on to win, 103-92, taking a 2-1 lead in the series. They pulled away late in the 4th quarter by playing the most efficient offense either team had played all night (31 pts in the quarter), with Danny Green hitting two big shot threes.  In the absence of Spurs injured point guard Parker, Patty Mills (Parker’s backup) and the Rockets’ Beverley were water bugs on a lake of hardwood, chasing each other all over the court in high speed bursts.

Harden’s trials and tribulations were made-for-TV drama, and his determination was remarkable. He drove down the lane at every opportunity, whether he was getting the calls or not. no matter how much he was being hit near the basket. Whether or not this was good basketball or something else entirely is debatable, but with his teammates struggling to make shots (an arctic 18-60, or 30%), Harden kept the Rockets in it until late in the 4th, when the Spurs fired up a 9-2 run.

The free throws capping the run brought Davis back into the picture, as he sent Mills to the line on a Beverley shooting foul with 2:38 to go in the game. It was Beverley’s 5th foul. The Spurs were up 94-82 at that point, and Davis’ call felt like the game clincher. Beverley turned his frustrations on Davis, and Davis hit him with a technical foul, the second on the Rockets in the quarter (Harden got the first). The Spurs made all three free throws, running the score up to 97-82 with 2:38 to play.

By the final horn, 25.7% of the fouls called in the game had been called on two players, Harden (4) and Beverley (5), the guys doing the most to force the action and keep the Rockets in it. In addition to the nine fouls, each had a technical foul issued by Davis, bringing their foul share up to 11 of 37 total calls, which looks more than a little odd in a game where the other key players were allowed to play with minimal interference from the refs.

The T’s marked the 4th game in a row for Davis in which he had called the only technical fouls in the game, going back to the last time Davis saw the Rockets, in Houston April 25.

  • May 2 in Boston, Wizards-Celtics Game 2. Double technicals to Isaiah Thomas and Wizards PF Markieff Morris after a confrontation in the 3rd Quarter.
  • April 27 in Milwaukee, Bucks-Raptors Game 6. Bucks coach Jason Kidd for arguing a missed slap call on a rebound and a blown charge-block call, both by Davis within 30 seconds of each other in the 4th quarter. Davis had called only one foul on the Raptors at that point, and that call was made 36:52 into the game.
  • April 25 in Houston, Thunder-Rockets Game 5. Davis issued double technicals to Beverley and Russell Westbrook for “arguing” (trash talking) in the 4th quarter.

Is the NBA watching?

It would be difficult to believe that the NBA isn’t keeping tabs on these developments, and possibly even on Davis himself, given the infamous inbound play from last year’s Thunder-Spurs series and the ensuing  public scrutiny  of Davis, who was the official right on top of three obvious inbound violations. That got the attention of everyone who follows the league or watches sports news, as well as a statement from the league acknowledging that the game officials had blown the call.

“The Playoff Selection Process” page posted at NBA Official is the only document I can find relating to the league’s evaluation process of referees. (Note: An NBA press release dated 3/2/17 announced the launch of an Officiating Advisory Council and a number of other initiatives “with an eye toward continuous improvement” to take place over the next few years.) Davis has survived two personnel cuts for this year’s playoffs, the first to qualify as one of the 37 officials working Round 1 games, the second to advance into the pool of 30 working the semifinals. The evaluation process, assuming it is more than just a corporate rubber stamp, is described in two sentences:

“The determination on playoff advancement for referees is based on referees’ overall evaluations from the regular season, as well as their performances in the previous round of the playoffs.  Those evaluations factor in analytical data and ratings by coaches, GMs and referee management.”

Okay, so surveys involving players such as the LA Times survey don’t matter. Davis having called the only technical fouls (six in all) in his last four games, however, seems like the sort of data that can’t be ignored, in particular the technicals issued in Milwaukee and Houston, where the crowds were already riled up over Davis’ calls and non-calls when Davis called the Ts.  The decision not to give Markieff Morris a technical foul (flagrant 1) after throwing Al Horford into the sideline area also seems like the sort of thing the league office would take note of.

It is possible that only geeks who study referee data at basketball-reference.com are aware of Davis’ visiting team .540 win-loss record, or that Danny Crawford is the living embodiment of the league averages — but this doesn’t seem likely. The existence online of analytical stat pages for each referee is a sure sign that this writer is not the only NBA geek who has ever looked at them (I didn’t know those pages existed until last week). The NBA, apparently, does not.

The league announced on March 2 a number of new initiatives, including expansion of officiating staff over the next three years, an Officiating Advisory Council, a new scheduling system to “optimize the chemistry and composition of crews”, and “the use of a new data-driven review system”, among other things. The review system will “create objective referee measurement standards and track progress regarding call accuracy and errors per game over multiple seasons” — which is to say, whatever the NBA does now probably doesn’t track progress or trends such as Davis’ visiting team win rate over time. Whatever the NBA does now in the 2017 playoffs isn’t exactly clear, but they do mention the use of “analytical data” in the playoff referee selection process.

The questions begged here are whether or not the NBA assigns refs to playoff games randomly or whether there is a thought process involved in, for example, sending Davis to Houston for Game 5 of the Rockets series with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, OKC facing elimination on the road. And if there is a thought process in place, what is it?  It’s obvious that Davis is not worried at all about incurring the wrath of a home crowd or going head to head with a star player — this much was evident in Houston on Friday and in Milwaukee April 27.

If it’s not random, and there is a thought process involved in making the officials’ assignments, do we really want to know why — with the Bucks needing to win to stay alive in the playoffs — the official who was the bane of home teams this season was assigned to referee a Game 6 in Milwaukee?

Note: As of games through Wednesday May 10, including Wizards-Celtics Game 5 in Boston, neither Crawford or Davis has worked another game since Game 3 in Houston May 5. Forte was 4th “alternate official” for one game. The officiating pool will be cut from 30 to 20 after the semifinals round.

Source-erole

This post has been edited to include notes about the NBA’s new officiating initiatives announced in March. Source for player stats, regular season and playoff averages is basketball-reference.com. Sources for game play-by-play data are the Official Scorer’s Reports posted at NBA.com at bottom of AP recaps.

  • ESPN/ABC Broadcast of Spurs-Rockets Game 3, 5/5/17. Analyst: Doug Collins
  • Official play-by-play: http://www.nba.com/games/20170505/SASHOU#/pbp
  • NBA referees data: http://www.basketball-reference.com/referees/davisma99r.html
  • Last Two Minute report, Wizards-Celtics Game 2, 5/2/17: http://official.nba.com/last-two-minute-report/?gameNo=0041600202&eventNum=558
  • LA Times survey, NBA best and worst officials, 1/31/16:  http://www.latimes.com/sports/nba/la-sp-nba-best-worst-referees-20160131-story.html
  • Playoff selection process: http://official.nba.com/playoff-officials-selection-process/
  • Fox Sports: Officiating fiasco, Thunder-Spurs, 05/03/16: http://www.foxsports.com/nba/story/san-antonio-spurs-oklahoma-city-thunder-referee-mistake-dion-waiters-050316
  • NBA press release, officiating changes, 03/02/17: http://pr.nba.com/nba-officiating-initiatives/

The “Ginobili rules” of the West don’t put the Spurs in title contention

He took the ball on a bounce after a sloppy, tipped inbound.  He held it too long, allowing precious seconds tick away, robbing his team of any chance for an offensive rebound if his final shot missed.  He advanced then toward Luc Mbah a Moute, one of the best defenders — if not the best defender — in basketball.  He drove hard left but Mbah a Moute was there first.  He pushed Luc off with his right arm but not far enough — Mbah a Moute stayed right on him as he planted a pivot foot.  He had no time and no choice but to jump full back, with both feet — traveling — and tossed up a 20-footer that barely lofted over Mbah a Moute’s outstretched hand.

No whistles.  The jumper poured through the hoop at the buzzer, giving the Spurs a 92-90 win over the Bucks.

“He” is Manu Ginobili, Charles Barkley’s second favorite player.  How about Charles’ boy this week?

“You mean that he travelled?” – Sir Charles doth speaketh.  “… That’s a travel. In all 50 states, that’s a travel.”

Not in San Antonio, Texas, on a Wednesday night in December — and not when the 10-13 Milwaukee Bucks were on the verge of pulling off a Texas sweep of the teams with the best records in the West.  Are the Spurs and Mavs truly title contenders?   Maybe.  But no, not if Boston and Miami continue playing the way they’re playing, not really.  Not if they’re struggling — and the Mavs failing — to beat the Bucks in Texas.

It’s been two-plus seasons since Ginobili, Parker and Duncan made the West Finals but the story seems to be that this summer they “banded together” for a title run in 2011. It’s an improbable story when you consider that they haven’t really been close to a title since 2007 when they last won; and it’s not a story everybody’s buying into — the Denver Nuggets certainly didn’t on Thursday night.  FoxSports “In the Paint” NBA analyst Marques Johnson this week qualified  his take on the Spurs and Mavs as “the best in the West” with a telling … “for now.” And he says it twice for emphasis.

Marques (1977-1984) was the greatest forward to ever wear a Bucks uniform, the only Buck not named Kareem or Sidney to be a 1st team All-Pro.   It’s always strange to see Junior Bridgeman‘s #2 up in the BC rafters (though they on the court together for roughly half the game, Bridgeman was Marques’ backup) while Marques’ #8 is still in circulation, worn by rookie Larry Sanders (heck, I’d wear it too if I were a Bucks rookie).  Like Barkley, Marques is more keen on the Mavs chances — probably figuring that Dirk Nowitzki is the one player whom none of his contending Bucks teams would have had a defense for.  The Spurs?  “The Spurs are the Spurs,” Johnson shrugged.

But the thing that’s going unmentioned in the NBA this week by Marques, Barkley or anybody is that neither the Spurs or Mavs looked like championship contenders against the Bucks — a concession perhaps to the idea that the Bucks have the unluckiest 10-14 record in basketball and are so-under-the-radar in terms of contention that you need sonar to track them.  The Bucks haven’t backed away from any challenges since Andrew Bogut came back into the lineup, including the Heat, but that’s not the point — nobody’s going to talk about the Bucks until they start putting the ball in the basket with more regularity, go on a winning streak and actually beat the Heat, which they’ll get two chances to do the first week of January.

The point is, the Bucks were screwed in San Antonio — no other way to put it.  The refs didn’t just eat their whistles on Ginobili’s buzzer beater, they were loathe the entire game to call fouls on the Spurs starting five.  That isn’t going to happen if and when the Spurs meet Kobe, Gasol and the Lakers in the playoffs.

Here’s the foul story: One on Manu, one on Parker, one on DeJuan Blair and three on Tim Duncan, who was guarding Bogut most of the night and basically humped his arm with the score tied 90-90 and the Bucks trying to feed their All-Star center in the post.   No fouls on Richard Jefferson.  That’s six fouls in 150 minutes played by the Spurs starters — or an astounding one foul per 25 minutes played, which means the refs were not about to whistle even 5 fouls on the Spurs starters per 120 mins of available PT in a half.

Brandon Jennings was hacked all night by Tony Parker and battered to a 4-18 shooting night.  Yet the Bucks, with John Salmons and Corey Maggette all but benched for the game and Carlos Delfino still recovering from a head injury, had the ball with the score tied at 90 and 30 seconds to play.

The following night in Denver it was more of the same for the Spurs, playing at full strength against the Chauncey-less Nuggets.  Duncan fouled out two or three times by my count but was only whistled for four, even as his counterpart, Nene Hilario, was fouled out.  Parker — who fouls everybody in sight — was caught for all of one foul playing 37 minutes.  In the end it was Manu twisting for a layup to give the Spurs the lead and then saving the game by leaping into Carmelo Anthony‘s path to draw a charge as time expired — taking the winning points off the Denver scoreboard.

Was Ginobili there, planted in position in time?   It was close, too close not to question — but it was Manu.  Of course the call went his way, whether or not what he did was to jump — leap, literally, both feet in the air from the weakside — under Carmelo as Carmelo (31 pts in the game) was gathering to lift to the rim.

But hey — it was Manu.  Tough luck, Carmelo.  “Bullshit,” said Nuggets coach George Karl.  The Spurs are now 22-3, the best record in basketball and they’re playing at full strength in December. It’s the fastest start in Spurs history.  But I watched the Spurs lose twice this week, and so did you — only to see the refs award them the wins.  No, the Spurs are no title contender — they don’t have the muscle in the paint to help Duncan and truly contend, and no amount of magical refereeing will allow the Manu and Parker and RJ show to carry them to the finals.

Call the Spurs a lucky 22-3, as lucky as the Bucks 10-14 mark has been unlucky and injury riddled.  As lucky as the Bears 9-4 record atop the NFC North (oh, that’s probably stretching it).  The luck of things in the NBA have a tendency to even out over the grueling 82-game schedule — let’s not go ahead and crown their asses yet.   Remember, against the Bucks, the Spurs were posterized in the 4th quarter by, of all people, Drew Gooden.

********************************

“I still don’t think he’s a center” — Kevin McHale on the Hawks Al Horford — who is not a center despite the Hawks insistence (under Mike Woodson anyway) that Horford is a 6’11″center.   In Boston, Horford had just hit an early 18-footer against the Celtics, and McHale noted that Horford’s improving 18-footer was the thing that “separates him from other big forwards.”  Al Horford, power forward.  Too small to start against Andrew Bogut and other centers (that task goes to Hawks big man Jason Collins), and too small at 6’9 to appear on center ranking lists.  Hopefully, commentary like McHale’s is a sign that Bogut will be making his All-Star game debut in Los Angeles in February.

*************************

Bogut since his return against the Magic Dec. 4:  19.8 pts – 14.2 rebs – 4 blks – 1 steal – 2.3 assists per game.  Add in the possessions that he turns over by taking charges and the result is a center playing better now than Dwight Howard.  Overall, Bogut leads the NBA in blocks per game (3.1) and has the 3rd-best defensive rating in the league (96.5 pts allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) behind Kevin Garnett and Howard.  That’s the sort of company AB keeps these days.

If Bogut keeps it up and continues hitting 55% of his shots (50 of 89 since tipping it off against the Magic), the Bucks should weather the current scheduling nightmare (and AB’s horrendous free throw shooting) by earning a few tough road wins in the West — and be right on the Bulls’ tails by late January.

***************************

Speaking of centers and the Bulls, Joakim Noah will be out nursing a broken right thumb until after the All-Star break.  With the Bucks in the middle of the toughest stretch of basketball in the league this season, fate (or Bulls management) has conspired to make sure the Bulls don’t run away with the Central.  The Bulls can’t and won’t keep up their 16-8 pace (and 3rd-ranked defense) without their defensive anchor in the paint having the All-Star season he was having — but the Bucks have a six game hole to climb out of while playing the toughest December-early January schedule in the league.

The Bucks play Dec. 28 and Jan. 24 in Chicago.  Noah will miss both of those, which means the Bucks won’t get a chance to see the Rose-Noah-Boozer Bulls until Feb. 26 in Milwaukee.  That’s too bad, because a Bucks-Bulls game without Joakim Noah is like playing the Celtics without Kevin Garnett — it takes the fun out of the battle for the paint.  I wonder if Bogut will miss him.

I can’t help but wonder, though, given that 2-handed push shot that Noah throws up at the rim,  what he needs his right thumb for?

Lebron, Mo and the Cavs look like contenders; plus Damon Jones

Mo blows town for ClevelandOne could argue that the Phoenix Suns, who defeated the Bucks Saturday, may not be title contenders. I wouldn’t, but it could be argued, Shaquille O’Neal’s age being one talking point.  However, if you come across arguments that the Cleveland Cavaliers are not contenders, then you know those sources didn’t watch the 2008 playoffs.

While NBA wags all over the country were ready to hand the 2008 NBA title to Kobe, Pau Gasol and the Lakers, the real battle was taking place in the East as the Celtics wrested a grueling semifinals series from the Cavs in the waning minutes of game seven.  Once Lebron and his Cavs were dispatched, the Pistons and Lakers were a matter of course for the champion Celtics.

This season, the Cavs are healthy, there are no holdouts to deal with and they’ve improved with the addition of Mo Williams‘ instant offense in the August trade with the Bucks (image at left by Jeremy Janneen) and Sonics-Thunder.

Even without the addition of Mo, the Lebrons of 2008 can’t help but improve:  coach Mike Brown has had more time to integrate the new players acquired last February at the trading deadline — Big Ben Wallace, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak.

With Mo and rookie power forward J.J. Hickson joining that group, most of Cleveland’s 9-man rotation is new since they played the Spurs for the NBA title in 2007.  The team that Detroit couldn’t beat in the playoffs has been remade.  They are younger and quicker at the guard positions; they are stronger inside with Big Ben; and with Mo and a healthy, more experienced Boobie Gibson, they shoot better than ever.  The only real question is whether the Cavs’ aging big men, Wallace and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can stay healthy into the playoffs.  Currently, backup big man Andy Varejao — who’s name surfaced often over the summer as a guy the Bucks may be interested in — is playing more than Wallace.

I’m not expecting the Bucks to escape from the Q in Cleveland with a win. In fact, coach Skiles should let Michael Redd shoot all night in his home state** and play the deep bench players like Joe Alexander, Dan Gadzuric, Tyrone Lue, Malik Allen and Francisco Elson — save some energy for the home crowd tomorrow night against an injury riddled San Antonio Spurs.  The Spurs without Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker?  It’s a gift, and the Bucks should focus on getting that win.  The early schedule is so tough, the more wins they can cherry pick here and there, the better off they’ll be in January when the schedule eases up, obviously.

**Anybody else wondering why coach Skiles seems in no hurry to get Redd back on the court?

How is Mo doing? So far so good with room to improve.  Through seven games the Cavs are 5-2 and Mo is playing 34 minutes a game, averaging 14 pts and 5 assists.  He and Lebron are doing most of the ballhandling, which is a load off of West – the Cavs best defensive guard – and Gibson, the 3-point gun.  Mo has yet to get his shot going but I’m sure he’d love to turn it on against his old teammates.

*************************

Are the Bucks in the Antonio McDyess sweepstakes? No. But before I get to that, McDyess would be a perfect fit on the Bucks roster — a power forward who plays within the game and can stick a fifteen footer a la Scott Williams back in the days of The Big Three. McDyess would very likely be the factor that would launch the Bucks into the playoffs.

According to McDyess’ agent, 19 teams have called about acquiring Antonio, who refused to report to the Denver Nuggets, negotiated a buyout of his contract and was waived yesterday. Once he clears waivers Wednesday, McDyess is a free agent and can sign with anyone but Detroit. The rules say he must wait 30 days before he can resign with the Pistons.

I’m assuming that one of the calls to McDyess’ agent was from Bucks GM John Hammond, simply because Hammond is too thorough to NOT make the call. But if McDyess wouldn’t report to the Nuggets (reportedly because the Nuggets are not a title contender), what chance would the Bucks have? They wouldn’t be able to compete with the Celtics, Cavs, Lakers and Pistons, all of whom are very interested in signing McDyess.

It’s difficult to imagine McDyess abandoning his Pistons teammates of the last four years and jumping to Cleveland or Boston, but stranger things have happened in these self-interested times. I wouldn’t bet on McDyess going anywhere but back to Detroit. NBA fans should keep this in mind when reading the wishful thinking in the Cleveland and Boston media, or watching the any-rumor-for-a story channel, ESPN. 

In this Boston.com story, Sam Cassell, a friend of McDyess’, figures his pal will wait 30 days and return to Detroit, where they’ve missed him in the paint already.

*****************************

What’s Damon Jones up to? At the tail end of the Cleveland Morning Journal McDyess story linked above (here ’tis again), the MJ tracks down former Cav Damon Jones:

Former Cavs guard Damon Jones, who was traded to Milwaukee in August but never reported, is working out in California under trainer Joe Abunassar. He’s waiting for another shot at the NBA. The Bucks don’t appear over-anxious to give up on his expiring contract, which is why he’s still on their roster. Jones isn’t interested in a buyout.

So what does “Bucks don’t appear over-anxious to give up on his expiring contract” mean?  It means that John Hammond likely views Jones and his $4.5 million contract, which expires at the end of this season, as good to have around when you’ve got to work out a trade. The bigger question is who else on the Bucks roster would Hammond be willing to trade? My speculation is that Bogut and R.J. are safe – and probably Ramon Sessions and the rookies. The rest will likely wait until after some more games are played.