Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace close to return

Ben WallaceBen Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak took part in practice today and the Cleveland Clinic Sports center and participated in several drills. However, neither player would set a timetable for a return to game action.

Szczerbiak has missed three games with a left knee sprain, but he labeled himself “day to day” and said his knee is improving. Wallace, meanwhile, has been out since suffering a fractured right fibula Feb. 26 and is gradually adding drills to his regimen, but he has not yet participated in full-contact practice.

“I don’t know if I should come back,” Wallace joked when reminded that the Cavaliers are 13-1 without him.

Szczerbiak out three weeks with a knee injury

Another injury for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Wally Szczerbiak could be out for three weeks with a sprained left knee he suffered last night in the closing seconds of the third quarter against the Orlando Magic.

He underwent an MRI exam that revealed a sprained medial colateral ligament, the team said.

The Cavaliers have had more than their share of key injuries. Forward Ben Wallace has missed 11 games and is expected to be out another three weeks after breaking his right leg on Feb. 26. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (16 games, broken ankle), Delonte West (16, broken wrist), swingman Sasha Pavlovic (nine, sprained ankle), guard Daniel Gibson (five, bruised toe), forward Tarence Kinsey (seven, ankle sprain) and forward Darnell Jackson (11, broken wrist) have all missed significant time.

Larry Hughes thinks Lebron will remain with Cleveland

New York Knicks forward Larry Hughes jokingly added fuel to the fire by reporting how fond Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is of New York coach Mike D’Antoni. James in on the New York wishlist in 2010, according to the New York Daily News.
But Hughes, who often exchanges text messages with James, also noted there is the possibility James might just stay in Cleveland. Hughes suggested James could sign an extension with the Cavaliers over the summer.

“It will be hard for him to leave,” Hughes said. “He has a great situation there. They might win it this year. If they do win, why leave? I think he’ll stay.”

Mike Brown Coaches by Feel, Not Numbers

img_0421Near the end of Coach Mike Brown’s pregame standup before Cleveland’s 99-89 win over Miami on Saturday, I asked him several questions relating to game plan preparation and his thoughts about various basketball statistics. Here is that interview in its entirety:

Friedman: “Even though you are not a big stat guy, are there one or two key stats that you might look at either after a game or after a series of games in order to track your team’s progress?”

Brown: “Opponent’s field goal percentage, first, and then opponent’s points, second, but the opponent’s field goal percentage is a big thing for me.”

Friedman: “Total opponent’s points or point differential?”

Brown: “No, no, no—total points. I look at the field goal percentage first because it could be a high possession game and sometimes you get in a high possession game but still play good defense and there will be a lot of points because it is a high possession game. So, opponent’s field goal percentage is something that I Iook at. I will take a peek at points in the paint and I will look at free throw attempts, because the points can be deceiving even if the field goal percentage is low because we may have fouled on every other possession. We have to be a physical defensive team without fouling. I look at that also.”

Friedman: “What are your targets for defensive field goal percentage and points allowed? I know that you could have a high possession game but in general what are your goals in those two categories?”

Brown: “I like anything below 40 (for opponent’s field goal percentage). That looks beautiful to me. For free throw attempts, if you can keep them below 20 that is pretty good.”

Friedman: “What about points allowed?”

Brown: “Again, it depends on the flow of the game—in a high possession game, if they score 98 points, then great. If not, if we keep our opponent in the 80s then I am excited about that. Those are three areas where if we can keep our opponents limited to those numbers then I am real excited about our game.”

Friedman: “So, points in the 80s, field goal percentage below 40 and free throw attempts 20 or below for your opponent.”

Brown: “Those are high numbers.”

Friedman: “Right. I know–of course.”

Brown: “Those are not realistic numbers to have every game and if you are doing that you probably are the best defensive team in the business—but those are beautiful numbers to me.”

Friedman: “Is that something that you learned from your San Antonio experience with Gregg Popovich? I know that he is a big defensive field goal percentage guy.”

Brown: “It’s kind of funny, because Pop’s not a stat guy either. I remember one of the assistant coaches was P.J. (Carlesimo), who is a stat guy—Pop’s not. P.J., the first time he was with us in one of the games early in the season, gave a stat sheet to Pop during a timeout, and Pop was like, ‘I don’t need to look at this to know if we’re not rebounding!’ I’m the same way. I’m a ‘by feel’ guy. Obviously, you do look at opponent’s rebounds every once in a while, whether it’s offense or defense, but I don’t dwell on it. I think that a lot of times what you do with stats is if you have a point that you want to show and prove to the team then you break out the stats and throw those out there.”

Friedman: “So, you feel like you watched the game, you don’t need numbers to tell you—you watched, so you know if your team is boxing out, if they are rebounding, if they are defending.”

Brown: “Yeah, you have a general feel. Also, that is part of the reason that nowadays you have what—16 assistant coaches? (laughs) So, they need something to do, too. So they should let you know if we are doing something right or something wrong.”

Friedman: “Did you see the New York Times article by Michael Lewis (you can find my take on Lewis’ piece here)?”

Brown: “No.”

Friedman: “The article discusses how Houston General Manager Daryl Morey uses stats. The Rockets look at certain tendencies for Kobe Bryant and then give this real detailed scouting report to Shane Battier about how to guard him, to try to force him to certain areas. As you know, you can’t shut down a great player but you can try to force him to lower percentage areas. Do you not believe in using stats in that kind of way? Do you just go more by feel because you have some idea of the tendencies of Kobe or Wade or whoever the case may be on a given night? Do you look at any of that stuff, like if he takes a one dribble pullup to the left he is shooting this percentage but if he does the same move to the right he is shooting this percentage, so we are going to steer him to his lower percentage area?”

Brown: “Two things. Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?”

At first I thought that this was a rhetorical question, but after Brown paused for a beat I answered him.

Friedman: “They haven’t won any, obviously.”

Brown: “So, not to say that’s right or to say that’s wrong but stats in my opinion are not the tell tale for everything. I think they are good to use.

Again, I was with Pop for three years and he’s not a stat guy. In a 10 year span, he’s won four NBA championships. I know that every game, he doesn’t go up to Bruce (Bowen) and say, ‘Kobe shoots 22% from the right corner and 35% from the left corner’ or whatever. It’s a thing that, yes, if you use it the right way it can be helpful, but if you try to use stats too much I don’t know if it’s going to bring you a championship, at least from what I’ve experienced. We didn’t need those types of detailed stats to win a championship in San Antonio.”

Friedman: “Your idea is that you have general principles that you believe in—holding teams to a low field goal percentage and the other things that you listed before—and if your team adheres to those principles then you believe that forms the foundation for building a championship level defense and ultimately winning a championship. Is that a correct understanding of what you are saying?”

Brown: “That’s my opinion. On the flip side, I don’t know Pat Riley well but I know that when he was the head coach in Miami he was a big stat guy. They have plenty of interns breaking down stats from every angle in every way. They won a championship. It’s just basically what you feel and who you are. I know, for me, my philosophical approach is (modeled) more (on) Pop’s than anything else.”

If you read Coach Brown’s comments with an understanding and appreciation for how high level basketball should be coached and played, then it is no mystery why he has already led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals once and why he currently has them on target to post the best record in the Eastern Conference this season—even though other teams are considered more fun to watch and despite the amount of attention that has been focused on the kind of basketball statistical analysis that Popovich and Brown do not use. The Popovich approach has worked very well for the Spurs, so Cavs fans should be very happy that Coach Brown is essentially constructing San Antonio East in Cleveland.

Cleveland’s One-Two Punch Knocks Out Heat

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the headline acts but Mo Williams stole the show with a game-high 29 points as Cleveland beat Miami 99-89 to improve to 28-1 in the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs are also an NBA-best 12-1 after a loss, as they managed to quickly put Friday night’s debacle in Boston behind them. Williams shot 10-15 from the field, including 6-7 from three point range. The Cavs repeatedly involved James and Williams in screen/roll plays, forcing the Heat to pick their poison between Cleveland’s two All-Stars. James struggled with his shot, making just five of his 15 field goal attempts, but he still managed to produce the 21st regular season triple double of his career (14 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds). James tallied the 3000th assist of his career, becoming the second youngest player to reach that total (24 years, 67 days; Isiah Thomas was 23 years, 322 days old when he joined the 3000 assist club). Wade also shot poorly (9-23 from the field) and he fell just two rebounds short of a triple double (25 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds). Delonte West added 19 points and six assists for the Cavs, while Jermaine O’Neal had his highest scoring game since becoming a member of the Heat three weeks ago (19 points on 7-10 shooting).

The Cavs blitzed the Heat 9-0 in the first 3:39 and never trailed the rest of the way. Four different players scored in that opening outburst, while the Heat looked like they were encased in molasses; both teams were playing the second game of a back to back but Miami looked much more the worse for wear, committing eight first quarter turnovers. The Heat eventually settled down and they only had three more turnovers the rest of the game..

The Cavs pushed their lead as high as 20 points in the second quarter and were up 50-36 at halftime. Both teams sleepwalked through the third quarter, perhaps following the tone set by their leaders during that stanza: James shot 0-4 from the field (though he did have four assists) and Wade shot 1-5 from the field. The Cavs stretched the margin to 19 but the Heat closed to within 70-61 entering the fourth quarter. The old announcing cliche–“As bad as (fill in the blank) has played, they are only down (fill in the blank)”–perfectly described the Heat’s situation with 12 minutes to go: they had shot .424 from the field and league scoring leader Wade had only scored 15 points on 5-16 shooting but the visitors still were within striking distance.

Wade’s three pointer at the 6:51 mark trimmed the lead to 80-74 and Cleveland was only up 84-76 at the 5:06 mark when Wade and Anderson Varejao contested a jump ball on Miami’s side of the court. I was seated next to ProBasketballNews.com editor Sam Amico and turned to him and said, “Watch Wade jump into Varejao’s body, steal this tip and possibly give Miami a chance to shoot an open three pointer.” Sure enough, Wade jumped into Varejao to nullify the Brazilian’s height advantage and then Wade tipped the ball to Mario Chalmers, who missed a three pointer. James got the rebound and on the next possession he passed to Williams for a jumper to extend Cleveland’s lead to 86-76. That was a big five point swing but the Heat recovered from that setback to make one final run, coming to within 91-85 after a Michael Beasley jumper at the 2:18 mark. Neither team scored for more than a minute and then Wade made one of his patented full speed drives to the hoop. He collided with Varejao but no foul was called and Varejao grabbed the rebound. An incensed Wade received his second technical foul; the automatic ejection that follows a second technical was the first time that he has been kicked out of an NBA game. Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra also got a technical foul. It certainly looked like Varejao fouled Wade, so I can understand Miami’s frustration, even though the technical fouls and ejection essentially killed their chances of winning the game; Williams made both technical free throws and the Cavs led by at least six points the rest of the way.

After the game, Coach Spoelstra said, “We did not come with the right energy, toughness and disposition to start the game. That’s the bottom line…We did show some fight and some resolve later on in the game not to let it go. That was encouraging but it became a frustration night. We were all frustrated, including myself. We saw some calls that looked differently (than they were called), but, regardless, the bottom line, I’m not sure if we deserved to win that game.”

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown acknowledged James’ triple double but said that Williams’ shooting was the key: “Mo Williams was terrific for us down the stretch, hitting some big shots time and time again when we needed baskets…We ran side pick and roll with LeBron and Mo and he (Mo) made big play after big play. It was great to see a guy like Mo being able to take over the game offensively to give a guy like LeBron a rest.”

The Cavs just finished playing five games in seven days, with James logging at least 43 minutes in three of those games. He and the Cavs generally stay true to their motto of being a “no excuse team” but when someone asked James if tired legs may have had something to do with his back to back 5-15 shooting nights, James replied, “It was a big factor. Personally, I felt good when I came in and worked out before the game but as the game went on, I could tell from my jumper that my legs did not feel particularly well. I tried to do the other things like defend and try to get guys open for shots. Even when I’m not feeling particularly well on the offensive end, I still can find ways to contribute to our team and help us win.”

When someone suggested to Williams that it might be said that James had an off game due to his low shooting percentage, Williams replied, “Stats aren’t all about shot attempts and what you shot from the field. It’s the effect you have on the game…He can be one for whatever and he is still going to draw double teams and triple teams.”

Williams said that it did not bother him that most of the pregame attention focused on James and Wade despite the fact that Williams is also an All-Star: “I’ve never been a person who wanted the spotlight. I’m happy where I am right now. I’m in the perfect position, being with LeBron. He gets all the spotlight and I’m the guy behind closed doors who just sneaks up on you and you don’t know where I’m at but all of a sudden I’m there.” Like the Lakers’ Pau Gasol, Williams has the perfect attitude and temperament to play alongside an MVP caliber player: Gasol and Williams are legit All-Stars can take over on their own at times but they understand and appreciate how much easier the game is for them on a nightly basis because of all of the extra attention drawn by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James respectively. Some players in Gasol’s or Williams’ shoes would let their egos get in the way and feel the need to prove that they are “the man” but perhaps years of being “the man” on teams that did not go anywhere helped them to understand that only a few guys in the NBA are truly franchise players and it is a blessing to have one of them as a teammate.

Notes From Courtside:

During his pregame standup, someone asked Coach Spoelstra about the impact that the newly acquired Jermaine O’Neal and Jamario Moon have had on the team and how quickly they have meshed with Wade. Spoelstra said, “Jermaine has really helped. I think this goes understated all the time, the fact that he gives us a presence down there (in the low post) to balance out our attack has meaning. It really does, because he can catch and finish, we can also throw him the ball and run some offense through him that allows other guys to get easy baskets on cuts. We can vary our attack so that (Wade) can rest a little bit and we can play off someone else. The connection with Jamario is a little bit of a surprise. We knew that there were a lot of elements of his game that we liked but the type of connection that he and Dwyane have already with back cuts and lobs and things of that nature–that usually takes a little bit longer to develop.”

Coach Spoelstra has done very well in his first season as an NBA head coach. I asked him, “What has surprised you the most about the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach? What part of that adjustment has surprised you?”

Coach Spoelstra answered, “You think you know what it is when you are just in the other seat but until you are actually making the decisions and sitting in that chair 12 inches away (you don’t really know). Your meals, after losses, are a little bit tougher to eat. Your sleep patterns have changed a little bit. I always used to joke about those things with (former Miami Coach) Stan (Van Gundy) and (former Miami Coach) Pat (Riley), because I never had a problem sleeping or eating but now as a head coach it definitely affects you a little bit more.”

I then asked Coach Spoelstra, “Is your relationship with the players different now?”

He replied, “That’s natural. As an assistant coach, your role a lot of times is to bridge communication between the players and the head coach or to help communicate a message but also to connect on a friendly level. I’ve created a lot of friendships with players over the years as an assistant coach. You still try to do the same thing as a head coach but that is not always realistic because you don’t have as much time and you don’t have as much interaction on a day to day level as you do as an assistant coach, when you are working the players out on the court after practice, before practice and in meetings. So, the way you communicate is a little bit different but I still try to reach out to the guys as much as I can.”


It is sadly ironic that Ben Wallace was on the cover of Cleveland’s gameday program, because he has been sidelined for six games with a broken leg. The Cavs are 5-1 since Wallace got hurt, with their only loss coming on Friday at the hands of the defending champion Boston Celtics.

Wallace averages 3.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg in 24.0 minutes per game, so it is easy to belittle his impact, but the Cavs clearly miss the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. After the Miami game, the Cavs rank eighth in the NBA in points in the paint allowed (36.8 ppg) but their performance in this category has markedly declined since Wallace has been sidelined; they have been outscored in the paint 258-176 in those games, which works out to an average of 43.0-29.3. Even taking out Boston’s 58 points in the paint explosion on Friday, the Cavs are still giving up several more points per game in the paint than they were when Wallace was playing. They have been outscored in the paint in five of those six games; the Heat only rank 19th in the NBA in points in the paint but even in a losing cause they bested the Cavs 42-34 in that department.

The Cavs rank fourth in the NBA in rebounding differential (+ 3.0 rpg) but this is another area where they have not done nearly as well without Wallace in the lineup; the Cavs and their opponents have each grabbed 240 rebounds in the past six games. The Cavs have been outrebounded three times, outrebounded their opponents twice and tied their opponents once.

During Coach Brown’s pregame standup, I asked him, “How has Ben Wallace’s absence affected you in terms of giving up so many points in the paint?”

He answered, “He is a terrific defender–and player–for us. I don’t know what our points in the paint were with him and without him (because) I am not a huge stat guy but his presence is something that we miss–but just like when Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) was out with his length, we have to have other guys step up and we feel confident that other guys can step up and help hold that down. Whether he’s here or not, we’ve got to get that done.”


Wallace is a good example of a player whose impact on his team’s success is not accurately depicted by his individual statistics. Near the end of Coach Brown’s standup, the media throng around him thinned dramatically because James had just emerged for the trainer’s room for his pregame availability. This provided me the opportunity to ask Coach Brown several questions in a row relating to his perspective on basketball statistics, including how he utilizes statistics in game plan preparation, what numbers he most closely tracks to evaluate his team and his thoughts on Michael Lewis’ recent New York Times article about basketball statistics (I offered my take about the Lewis article here). I will present Coach Brown’s interesting comments about these subjects in a separate article that will be published soon.


After my interview with Coach Brown, I still managed to catch a good portion of James’ pregame availability. When I walked over, he was in the middle of answering a question about the MVP race. James said that Kobe Bryant had been the best player in the NBA in other seasons prior to winning the award for the first time last season and that he, Bryant, Wade, Paul Pierce and the other elite players are constantly trying to be the best players that they can be but this does not necessarily lead to winning the MVP trophy.

James also offered a humorous–if not quite mathematically sound–take on the race for the scoring title, saying with a smile, “The statistics that go with scoring are kind of crazy. You can score 50 points and go up two tenths of a point and then you can score 22 points and drop a whole point. Numbers are crazy how they work sometimes but if D. Wade continues to score 40 points I’m not going to keep up with that.” Of course, the only way for what James said to be literally true is if the 50 point game happened later in the season and was part of a larger sample of games, while the 22 point game happened earlier in the season when each game has a greater impact on the scoring average. The important thing for Cavs fans is that James is clearly not going to chase the scoring title at the expense of doing what is best for the team–but since part of what is best for the team involves James scoring a lot of points at times, he actually could still end up winning the scoring title anyway.


According to the media seating chart, Jay Mariotti was supposed to be seated next to me during the game but I did not see him until after the game, when he showed up for Coach Brown’s postgame standup. I joked that he must have found a better seat than the one assigned to him but Mariotti explained that he had spent most of the game working on a column after the news broke that Terrell Owens had signed a one year contract with the Buffalo Bills. It took Coach Brown a bit longer than usual to show up, so I chatted with Mariotti about the twists and turns of his career. I told him that I remembered reading some of his earliest Chicago Sun-Times’ columns when he was covering the great Bulls-Knicks playoff series. Mariotti said–half joking and half seriously–“You’re bringing a tear to my eye,” noting how the newspaper business has basically completely died in the intervening decade and a half. He mentioned that several of the newspapers he worked for during his career–including the great, short lived The National, Frank DeFord’s attempt to create a national daily sports newspaper–have gone out of business and I pointed out that Dick Schaap made a similar lament about his career in his autobiographyFlashing Before My Eyes. “At least I’m in good company,” Mariotti replied. He added that if DeFord started The Nationaltoday, it would all be online, which would eliminate the distribution problems that drove the paper out of business. I said that maybe DeFord was ahead of his time with the idea for The National and Mariotti agreed, suggesting that ESPN.com essentially represents an online version of what DeFord was trying to create. I held my tongue a bit with that comment, because I don’t think that the ESPN.com roster holds a candle to the team that DeFord assembled back in the day.

As for that long ago column about the old Bulls-Knicks series, Mariotti said that then-Chicago Coach Phil Jackson first fanned the flames of conspiracy theories by suggesting none too subtly that the NBA sent certain referees to certain games to get the desired result. It is not clear if Jackson really believed that or was just employing one of his countless mind games. Either way, Mariotti and I agreed that it definitely seemed like Hue Hollins had something against the Bulls in general and Scottie Pippen in particular. Every serious basketball fan knows about Hollins’ infamous blown call against Pippen that cost the Bulls a road win in game five of their 1994 series with New York–a series in which the home team eventually won all seven games–but I reminded Mariotti that Hollins was involved in several other questionable calls that went against Pippen and the Bulls, including one that possibly cost them a chance to have 73 wins in 1995-96 (and thus be the only NBA team ever to go through a season with single-digit losses).

LeBron’s Long Range Accuracy

LeBron James had a short “to do list” prior to this season:

Improve defensively. Check! Although his steals and blocked shots numbers are roughly the same as they were last season, James has without question made strides defensively both in terms of one on one defense and in terms of fitting in to the team’s overall defensive scheme.

Improve free throw shooting. Check! James is shooting a career-high .772 from the free throw line, up from .712 last season and reversing four years of steady decline in that category.

The third item on the list—improve perimeter shooting—is the subject of this article.

One way to evaluate James in this department is to look at his three point shooting percentage. James shot .290 from behind the arc as a rookie on 2.7 attempts per game. In his second season, he shot .350 on 3.9 attempts per game but since that time his attempts per game average increased to nearly 5 while his accuracy steadily declined: .335 in 2006, followed by .319 in 2007 and .315 last season. So far this season, James has improved his three point shooting percentage to .342 on 4.7 attempts per game.

James consistently shot right around .300 from three point range in the first three months of this season but in February he shot .400 and in the first three games of March he shot .632 (12-19). Obviously this is too small of a sample size in order to be able to determine whether James has really made a permanent improvement in his three point shooting or if he is just riding a temporary hot streak. James shot .361 from three point range in November 2006 and .391 in December 2006 but failed to reach the .300 mark in any of the remaining months of the 2006-07 season. A glance at his game logs shows that he has had brief hot streaks from three point range a few times during his career but those short hot streaks have always been followed by longer cold streaks.

A second way to evaluate James’ long range prowess is to examine the “Hot Spots” charts at NBA.com. The “Hot Spots” charts divide the court into 14 different zones. Each zone lists a player’s shooting percentage from that area and is color coded based on his accuracy: red, naturally, indicates a “hot” zone, gray could be termed lukewarm and blue is cold. Throughout his career, James has consistently been red hot in the paint but lukewarm or cold from virtually everywhere else. This season, that pattern still holds true: James is red hot in the paint, lukewarm in nine other zones and cold in four zones. His four cold zones are the two zones immediately outside of the paint on both the right and left sides (the midrange game) and the two zones directly to the right of the midrange zone on the right side of the court. James is lukewarm from the top of the key midrange zone and from four of the five three point zones.

What do these charts and numbers mean? We will find out during the last month of the season whether James has really improved his three point shooting or if he just temporarily boosted his percentage with a few hot shooting games. The bigger story is that he is still a cold shooter in several of the midrange areas. This is because James does not have a reliable one or two dribble pullup jump shot. In contrast, Kobe Bryant—the player with whom James is competing to win this year’s MVP—has three hot zones, 10 lukewarm zones and only one cold zone (straight on three pointers from above the top of the key). James has made some strides with his perimeter shooting but in the playoffs we can certainly still expect to see the better teams wall off the paint and try to force James to shoot jump shots, particularly from the midrange areas where he is still struggling.

Cavaliers first team to clinch playoff spot

The Cleveland Cavaliers became the first team to clinch a playoff spot by beating the Milwaukee Bucks 91-73 on Wednesday night. With more than one month left in the regular season, the Cavaliers for the fourth time will advance to the post season. The Cavaliers are 27-1 at home, best in the NBA.

Now the magic number to win the Central Division is six.

LeBron James scored 23 points, Delonte West had 13 and a career-high eight steals. Mo Williams scored 15 and Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 14.

Joe Smith Informs Cavaliers He Will Sign With Them

Joe Smith has informed the Cleveland Cavaliers that he will sign with them as soon as the waiver clears on Wednesday  according to NBA front-office sources.

The Cavs dealt for Smith at the trading deadline in February 2008 but had to part with him over the summer in the three-way trade with Milwaukee and Oklahoma City to acquire All-Star guard Mo Williams.