Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Legacy of Kobe Bryant: The Clash of Incredible Talent and Drive vs. Suspect Loyalty and Leadership

As Kobe Bryant’s Showtime documentary looms in the not-too-distant future, the Lakers legend has made time for a media tour as he rehabs another career-challenging injury. Regardless of what happens in the last few years of his career, Kobe Bryant will continue to be one of the only players in history who can be compared to Michael Jordan. While I have fervently argued that the two are not in the same area code in basketball lore (see linked article, for one), if you boil greatness down to championships, position, tenacity, and scoring prowess, there’s an argument to be made.

Jalen Rose mentioned that Kobe tearing a rotator cuff on a simple dunk is an issue: “If you can’t dunk the basketball…it’s like not being able to brush your teeth,” he said in a podcast. But in classic Kobe fashion, the work ethic and drive will not stop him. (Maybe $24 million is a pretty good incentive, too.) In lieu of attending Lakers games while rehabbing his injury, Kobe has opted for appearances with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel on late-night TV. Kobe’s approval of the happy-go-lucky nature of Nick Young, Jeremy Lin & Co. is, well... skip to the 1:50 mark and see for yourself:

Kobe pours his heart and soul into basketball unlike any player save maybe Michael Jordan. The ferocity earned him the snake moniker, the Black Mamba. He goes in for the kill and there is no room for joviality. The real question, though, is just that: is Kobe’s style the best for the successful career of a basketball player? And not only that, but does Kobe himself see the issues with this no-fun approach?

Kobe highlighted in his appearance on the Grantland Basketball Hour (GBBH) on ESPN that he grew up in isolation and as a result tended to look inward rather than outward to solve issues. He extrapolated this tendency to his strategy on the basketball court, where he found himself reluctant to share the basketball. If he was double-teamed and a teammate was open, he would consciously prefer to take the tough shot himself rather than give the opportunity to a teammate.

This attitude worked. Los Angeles saw five championship banners raised during the career of a player who scored 81 points in a game against a Toronto Raptors team that had that very Jalen Rose who intentionally injured Bryant in the 2000 NBA Finals. The revenge-seeking nature drove Kobe.

Loyalty and Relationships vs. Superstar Talent

Kobe’s relationship with Shaquille O’Neal soured in the early 00s because the diverging personalities of the two directly clashed. The work ethic of Kobe combined with the media-loving, free-spirited Shaq ultimately could not co-exist. One of the factors that boiled over from Kobe’s personality was this desire to prove that he could “win one on his own.” Shaq had won all three Finals MVP awards in the three-peat. Conversation simmered, was Kobe was only riding on the coattails of a guy who put up 30 and 15 in the 58 playoff games from 2000 to 2002? Apparently the "role" of 25-6-5 and the majority of clutch shot-taking was not enough to prove he was a co-star not part of the supporting cast in Hollywood.

Kobe forced Jerry Buss to decide between moving forward with himself or Shaquille O’Neal. The 25-year-old superstar Bryant was the clear choice. The irony here is in how today many people proclaim Kobe’s loyalty as a defining factor in his greatness. If we accept the arbitrary value in one player remaining with a single organization, is that value not tainted by the shooing in-and-out of teammates? Especially when one of those players has established himself as one of the top-10 greatest players of all time? Hypocrisy oozes from the doublespeak of such logic. 

Trade talks surrounding Kobe came to fruition in 2007 after the Lakers posted three consecutive seasons with win totals in the 30s and 40s…all after trading Shaq. Kobe even told Stephen A. Smith that he’d rather “go play on Pluto” than endure another season with the Lakers.

But you wouldn’t know that if you listened to Kobe (or his fans) talk about his loyalty today. In that GBBH interview, the star guard talked about how he has been “such a diehard Lakers fan” and that asking for a trade or to play somewhere else is “not him” and not what his career has been about. I believe that you take the good with the bad, Kobe said. You go down with the ship.

This lack of acknowledging the reality that he made is what make it easier for his fans to proclaim him to be so loyal. But the blatant hypocrisy is problematic and taints his legacy. This isn’t a problem of moral ground on the part of "haters." The man who values loyalty so high cannot see that his view of loyalty is warped. Bryant's own basketball career is marred with trade demands and even people who don't like him can get caught up in the fantasy that Kobe paints about himself. In that GBBH interview, Bill Simmons speculated that Kobe could have the record for most years playing on the team that drafted him. Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets.

Leadership and The Kobe Way 

After re-watching both this interview and the one that Kobe did with Ahmed Rashad, I noticed he took great pride in his leadership, something that again ties into that Jimmy Kimmel Live video. There’s no room for fun on Kobe’s Team. In order to be a leader, you have to hold people accountable. You’re not going to please everybody, he told Rashad. You don’t need to be friends to win championships, he told Simmons. Leadership is lonely.

When asked about his mentors—sources he tapped into for their leadership—Phil Jackson naturally came up. Yet the Zen Master failed to make a direct appearance in Kobe’s Showtime documentary (per Ahmed Rashad). The reason? Kobe said Jackson’s influences permeated throughout his career and that it would be doing the great coach a disservice by only mentioning him in passing.

When prodded about how the Knicks and present-day offenses implement Jackson’s notorious Triangle Offense, Bryant was quick to point out in the GBBH interview that it remains effective in today’s NBA…with none other than Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. The passing and ball movement, Kobe said, is all derived from Triangle principles. But is this the coaching and leadership that Kobe really wants and provides?

The hypocrisy is so blatant. A quick glance at his astronomical usage rate throughout his NBA career—peaking in 2006 at almost 40 percent—would seem to contradict the very principles he espouses in leadership. The impressive fall-away mid-range jumpers and fadeaway isolation post-ups are not exactly reminiscent of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs that surgically dismantled LeBron James and the Miami Heat with ball movement and possessions that often saw the ball in each of the five Spurs players’ hands. Which Phil Jackson does Kobe admire? The one who preached ball and player movement or the one who let him run the offense as he saw fit? Bryant didn’t believe in Phil too thoroughly anyway, evidenced by the coach deciding to leave the Lakers in 2004. This forcing an all-time great player and coach out in the same year is often overlooked in favor of that heralded “loyalty” label. But it is The Kobe Way.

Today’s stars have proven that much of what Kobe believes to be true is false. The Spurs ball movement is quite opposite of Kobe’s high singular usage rate. The belief that basketball success requires respect and not friendship has been repeatedly disproven. LeBron’s friendship with Dwyane Wade is well-documented. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are clearly good friends as well as savvy basketball professionals. Steph Curry and the gang were able to recruit Andre Iguodala when the time came. Joakim Noah’s unwavering loyalty to Derrick Rose is heartwarming. 

The Kobe Way became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Who else is going to take the shots?” fans of Kobe said, when Kobe was on the floor in recent years and still shooting the ball at a league-leading rate despite his advancing age. Who was it, though, who hindered star acquisitions (as did a $48.5 million contract)? So now Kobe’s left with the bed that he made. The desire to turn to no one but himself and that reluctancy to share the ball comes back to haunt him. And it fulfills the belief that he, and only he, can be the solution on the basketball court.

Chemistry wins. Contrary to everything that Kobe Bryant says that he believes in, when you have guys that genuinely like each other, sharing the ball and sacrificing the individual for the good of the team becomes second nature. And sacrifice for the good of the team has been proven to win championships, which was (again, ironically) the only goal Kobe had coming into the league (per the Rashad interview). The environment that Kobe Bryant created did/does not foster this type of chemistry and despite it’s repeated success, he neglects the reality, much like many other things I’ve highlighted. 

The beauty about Kobe Bryant is that he is so technically sound that he can and has overcome the traditional path to success. His individual ability on the court puts him alone with only a handful of other players in history in terms of pure basketball skill. What separates him from the truly greatest basketball players of all time is the failure to recognize what is necessary for a team to succeed. What it truly means to be a great overall player which includes making your teammates better, as Charles Barkley said in a recent episode of Inside the NBA. There is more to basketball success than the ability to hit shot after shot.

“I should have won seven,” Kobe told Ahmed Rashad. He should have, but he will never understand why it didn’t happen.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

NBA players and Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are serious knee injuries that often require surgery and an extended recovery period to remedy for professional athletes, particularly NBA players. Yet despite their severity, ACL tears have become increasingly common—just this season, Tony Wroten and Jabari Parker succumbed to ACL tears.

Notable NBA players who have sustained this injury previously include: Al Jefferson, Baron Davis, David West, Jamal Crawford, Kyle Lowry, Derrick Rose, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio, and Nerlens Noel. One lesser known member of The Torn ACL Club is Hall of Famer Bernard King, who tore it in 1985. He talked a little bit about it on The BS Report during the recent 2015 All-Star Break (57:00 mark). At that time, the medical science was not nearly as developed as it is now. He rehabbed his knee and returned to the floor, although he was never the same. DeJuan Blair is a more recent extremely odd case. He's played his entire NBA career with no ACL in either knee.

What exactly is the ACL?

Acronyms breed confusion so I made sure to de-mystify "ACL" right off the bat in the first sentence of this story. The anterior cruciate ligament is tissue in the knee. At first, I thought it would be excessively trivial to mention that there is a difference between the ACL and the achilles tendon…but when the NBA doesn’t know there is a difference, I figured it is worth mentioning that the two are not the same. The ACL is a ligament in the knee, and the Achilles tendon is tissue in the foot/heel area. (Ligaments connect bone to bone; tendons connect muscle to bone.)

ACL or Achilles...?

The ACL is responsible in helping prevent the tibia (“shin bone”) from sliding out from the femur (“thigh bone”). There are other ligaments involved in preventing excessive forward-to-back and side-to-side motion in the knee but ACL injuries are the most common.

What is an ACL tear? 

An acute ACL tear is, as the name suggests, a tear or rip of the ligament. There are three grades of injuries to the ACL, but the most common injuries are grade 3 sprains which are also called complete tears or a “rupture” of the ligament. This type of injury cannot heal on its own and leads to instability within the knee.

Although I don’t want to get too sidetracked, ACL tears can be accompanied by additional trauma to the knee. This can come in the form of broken bone, cartilage damage, tearing those other ligaments connecting the femur to the tibia and/or meniscus tears. The meniscus is tissue that cushions the knee bones, preventing inordinate bone-on-bone contact.

How does one tear the ACL? 

There are contact and non-contact means of tearing the ligament. In the NBA, jumping, rapid changing of directions, and sudden stops all put tremendous amounts of pressure on the knee that can lead to this type of injury—think euro-stepping, hard jump-stops, etc. Take another look at the list of NBA players that I mentioned in the beginning and you’ll see the majority of players that sustain this type of trauma are guards. Direct collision can also lead to ACL tears, and the first example that comes to my mind of a player who suffered a tear due to contact is the NFL quarterback, Tom Brady.

Diagnosis and associated injuries

People often recall a “pop” associated with the tear. Immediate instability of the knee often prevents those who sustained the injury from standing up after the injury occurs. Pain, loss of motion, and swelling are symptoms also associated with a tear.

In terms of a physician’s evaluation and diagnosis, there is: 1) the physical exam and 2) the MRI. The Lachman test is useful in diagnosing ACL tears because it checks anterior translation of the tibia (that forward-to-back movement I discussed earlier). Here’s one video that shows this test in action. Starting at the 1:00 mark in particular, you can see the problem quite visibly. Peruse YouTube some more if you are so inclined to view these physical exams in all their glory.

MRI exams visually confirm the injury and are useful in determining the severity of the injury as well as if there is any associated knee trauma, like meniscus tears.


We hear that NBA players who sustain ACL tears opt for surgery, but there are conservative recovery options for people who are not as physically active. Physical therapy can be used to build strength that helps restore function in the knee and DeJuan Blair is a rather shocking example of how much strength can compensate for lack of an ACL(s).

Surgery is the common route to recovery for most professional athletes because their activity level requires full knee strength and its intact ligaments. Since a torn ACL cannot heal on its own or be sutured, surgery requires reconstruction of the ligament with a tissue graft. The two most common sources of grafts are: the patient’s own patellar tendon or hamstring (called an autograft) or use of the ligament from a cadaver (allograft). Arthroscopic surgery is used to perform placement of the auto- or allograft tissue in place of the torn ACL.

Recovery and rehabilitation

Recovery from ACL reconstruction involves waiting for swelling to decrease, regaining knee motion, and re-building the leg muscle that atrophies due to lack of use. Physical therapy breaks all of this down into stages, and depending on the subject, return to playing professional athletics can take anywhere from six months to a year.

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There has been a lot of speculation as to why incidence of ACL tears has increased in recent years. Fatigue is an obvious concern because as athletes are pushed to practice and play for extended duration, the risk of injury increases. Cross-training is suggested to help prevent injuries in general, but also ligament tears. Repeated motion in one sport puts stress on muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the same manner and changing that up the type of physical motion the body undergoes can lessen the risk. Unfortunately though, sometimes all it takes is bad luck and a weird twist to tear an ACL…as a growing list of NBA players can attest to.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why the NBA center position is alive and well

The plethora of skilled guards in the NBA has led to this myth that the center position is becoming less relevant. While there is no doubt that there is a lack of dominant big men of previous eras a la Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O’Neal, there are still a host of prolific NBA centers. And then there are also bigs knocking on the door.

The establishment

Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, and Marc Gasol have set the foundation for what to expect from great players at that position. I would throw Andrew Bogut into that mix, but the nagging injuries make it difficult to put him where The Big Four have gone.

The rebounding and rim-protecting presence are vital to anchor an NBA defense. While Mark Jackson is on record saying that rim protection is overrated, I couldn’t disagree more. In a league predicated on attacking the rim and shooting threes, if you can ask one player to mitigate half of that load, you will be in good shape. Although the offensive game varies among The Big Four, the common thread is a track record of defense. Five out of the past six NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards have gone to these four. (The other was Tyson Chandler, another player who has been coveted around the league for the duration of his career.)

The future

This year alone has seen the rise of two players that can make a huge impact from the center spot: Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz and Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat. At 7’0” and 265 lbs., Whiteside in particular made a name for himself after a crazy triple-double against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday…that included 12 BLOCKS. You’d have to roll back the clock to Shawn Bradley in 1998 to find a player who had rejected more shots than that.

Whiteside’s value to the Heat has been instrumental in their ability to string together wins after LeBron took his talents away from South Beach. After losing five in a row beginning in late December, coach Erik Spoelstra entrusted Whiteside with his first 25+ minute game. 11 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks later, Spo and the team knew they had found something. He’s posted 13-11 and 3.4 blocks in the month of January…in only 24 minutes per game.

Gobert is not an offensive threat (yet) but he’s defensive presence has been a shining spot for the struggling Jazz. Utah is 17-30 in the ultra-competitive Western Conference but is managing to hold opponents to 98.4 points per game. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Gobert man-handled the best team in the West on Friday on the glass. Gobert hauled in 10 rebounds…six on offense. 

I can’t go any farther without mentioning the polarizing DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins has had an interesting week in social media…but not in a bad way.

Boogie finally earned recognition as an NBA All-Star despite the Sacramento Kings struggles. His vocal support of former coach Mike Malone went over well in NBA circles and that bad-boy DMC of previous years appears to have slowly been tamed. He’s even shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc (oh wait, that’s on a grand total of two attempts).

Brooklyn Lopez, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, Andreg Monrommond, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler…the list goes on and on. As a natural PF who's playing the 5, Anthony Davis is gaining acceptance as a bona-fide superstar.

Why it’s been tough to measure the value of a center

The media’s general affinity for box score statistics does not favor big men. Aside from a 20-rebound game or a 10-block game, it’s difficult to be impressed when Kyrie Irving is going off for 55 and Klay Thompson is setting NBA records. Offense is sexy. Defense is a grind.

Guys like Paul George last year and Draymond Green this year have started to change that trend. Advanced metrics have also had a hand in that change. Player Tracking on is a haven for stat nerds like myself but is also a great place to find the value of the Rudy Gobert’s of the world (opponents are shooting a horrendous 37.1% at the rim against him).

Anthony Davis is well above league average in FG% from virtually everywhere on the floor from less than six feet to greater than 15 feet and is defending all areas relatively equally. The Bird Writes, a New Orleans Pelicans blog, called Davis “basketball’s free safety.

But even advanced metrics have a hard time valuing how big men change shots and often simply their presence alone eliminates or significantly decreases opportunities for opponents to hit the highest percentage shots on the court. 

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So while you won’t see many/any ooh-worthy ball-handling or scoring outbursts from NBA bigs, there is no doubting their value to established teams as well as teams seeking to join the ranks of the playoff teams. And there is plenty of talent in the NBA pool as Kahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid wait in the wings to make their own impact.