Hibbert putting post play back in spotlight

Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, averaging 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds against Miami going into Game 7, is giving a good name once again to post play, writes Sam Smith.

Is Roy Hibbert saving the NBA? Perhaps this is not a good week to go there after Hibbert’s offending postgame comments Saturday that drew him a $75,000 league fine. But it’s been Hibbert’s play, averaging 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds against Miami going into Game 7 Monday, that is giving a good name once again to post play. Perhaps not pure post play, as Hibbert gets much of his paint penetration from pick and rolls. And perhaps it’s not exactly the second coming of Wilt or Kareem as Miami doesn’t play a center and it’s hard to even classify Chris Bosh as a power anything.

Still, Miami has been the favorite to repeat as champions all season. And though they still may, the Bulls size obviously bothered the Heat and the Pacers’ size has them on the verge of elimination.

“The center position is the most important position in basketball,” says Hall of Famer Chet Walker who played on the 1967 champion 76ers with Wilt Chamberlain. “Guards out there shooting 30-footers are not the way to win. I’ve said these guys today can’t do things against guys like Russell and Chamberlain. But the center position is not obsolete. It’s back and this kid Hibbert is doing a great job.”

There’s been much wringing of hands in recent years, especially from basketball traditionalists, about the lack of post play, of center play, that the game has been evolving into a shooting contest with no real offenses and a bunch of exciting guards running pick and rolls or pick and pop or drive and kick. It’s come along with the NBA altering rules that give more freedom to guards and allow more inside contact as well as zone defenses.

Plus, more big young players coming through unstructured prep, college and amateur systems have eschewed post play for the more entertaining three point shooting and driving. The result has been fewer teams with big men inside who also can score and a Miami team that has become favorites with a wide open game not utilizing any centers.

But now it appears size and interior play are proving a Miami Achilles heel, and the NBA is known for its copycat style.

It would be welcome for someone like Bill Cartwright, who is one of the NBA’s top big man teachers of post play. Cartwright, the former Bulls center and coach who coached in Japan last winter and is looking for an NBA hookup for next season, was in many respects the final piece for the champion Bulls of the early 1990’s.

The late 1980’s Bulls with Michael Jordan were an exciting team, but lacking interior play in an era when it was common. Though Jordan wasn’t exactly on board, then assistant coach Phil Jackson was a vocal advocate of trading for Cartwright. Jordan was not happy as the trade cost him best friend and protector Charles Oakley. Eventually, as Jordan saw the benefits of the Bulls’ balanced play and post defense, he became a big supporter.

The Bulls went on to six titles as Jackson continually had the Bulls add big men each season to complement Cartwright and then Luc Longley. The big man hasn’t fully disappeared as the Spurs with Tim Duncan always have understood the formula. But it became fashionable to eschew the inside play. Perhaps a comeback is ahead.

“It’s a copycat league,” notes Cartwright. “They see screen and roll as now being the offense. ‘Triangle’ is now a horrible word in this league. It just won 11 championships. But nobody runs it. How come nobody even has a name for their offense? It’s like the triangle is a bad thing. Coaches should be embarrassed.”

Yes, the Heat is defending champions. And the Thunder with no post game was supposed to be playing them. The Lakers have two possible Hall of Fame post players in Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and didn’t go inside. But the history of the NBA matches success with great post presence from Russell and Wilt to Willis Reed, Kareem, Olajuwon, Shaq and Duncan. Of course, not everyone can have a great one. But Cartwright notes anyone can play that way and be better as the Pacers have done. After all, no one is confusing Roy Hibbert with even Roy Hobbs.

Cartwright explains as soon as you get the ball to the post you’ve penetrated the defense, which is the aim of every offense. Then with cutters you create easy opportunities. Simple. Cartwright likes the way former NBA coach Lawrence Frank, whom Cartwright worked for with the Nets, put it: The post man is a hub.

Cartwright points out like with the Bulls with Dennis Rodman, the post man doesn’t have to be the center. Jordan did it routinely as well. James has in some games, but shies away as Miami keeps returning to its high screen/roll game. Cartwright believes many of the young coaches in the game today just simply never learned it. And there remains an unexplained NBA bias about hiring big men as coaches.

“That’s what’s wrong with our league today,” Cartwright insists. “A team has success with the screen and roll and everyone runs it. But they don’t really know how to get the ball into the post. Don’t get me wrong. In certain situations, it’s very good. But that’s not all there should be. I’d rather have a bad shot from eight feet than a shot from 25 feet.”

Putting Spurs’ place in history in perspective

-- Suddenly, the San Antonio Spurs are the favorites to win the 2013 NBA championship. That’s assuming they will not have gotten too much rest after 10 days off with their sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies while the Eastern Conference winner goes seven games. Similarly, in 1998, it was the Bulls who went seven games to defeat the Indiana Pacers while the Utah Jazz swept the Lakers and then had 10 days off until the Finals. Jazz players have since said the rest wasn’t good for them as they split the first two home games of the Finals, eventually losing to the Michael Jordan shot in Game 6. Much will be debated about the rest for the Spurs. Though the Bulls in 1996 had eight days off before the Finals and then won the first three games over Seattle.

But if the Spurs win the title, that would be their fifth and it would be five for five for Tim Duncan. Greatness in sports often is defined by performing your best at the most important time. It’s why Michael Jordan mostly is mentioned as the best ever. His Bulls went to the Finals six times and they won each time. It’s a record LeBron James cannot match already with two Finals losses and perhaps another this season. Bill Russell is generally regarded as the greatest winner with 11 titles. He was 11 of 12 in the Finals, but that only loss in 1958 came when he was injured in Game 3 with the teams tied 1-1 and didn’t play again in the series. George Mikan was five of five, but that was pre shot clock, sort of the version of the 1800’s in baseball. Wilt Chamberlain lost four of his six Finals he played in, which always costs him in his argument with Russell while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six of 10. Larry Bird won three of five and Magic Johnson five of nine. So if the Spurs win, that would put Tim Duncan in rare company with a perfect five of five as the counting usually begins with five appearances. And while other Celtics like Sam Jones and John Havlicek have multiple titles, they wouldn’t have many without Russell. So as dynasties go—and the Spurs would be one of the greatest ever with the longest span of titles with one player going from 1999 to 2013—how great would they be? Better than the Bulls?

One of those five of five guys is Steve Kerr, who did hit some big shots a few times, but isn’t quite in this conversation. But he did win three titles with Jordan and two with Duncan. And while he’s not engaging in the debate over which team was better, he finds some things in common.

“The teams were different,” said Kerr, who is broadcasting the Eastern Conference finals with TNT. “The common thread was great defense. The Spurs with two seven footers (with David Robinson in 1999 and 2003). Not extending pressure to half court, but nothing easy and making you score over two big guys. The Bulls were attack dogs with perimeter pressure, causing havoc in a different way but both defensively effective. The similarities in the coaching staff were not the personalities, but in intelligence and preparation. Phil (Jackson) and Pop (Gregg Popovich) were two of the smartest in any walk of life much less basketball. Guys who always were ahead of the curve, from the locker room to game plan detail.

“It’s so rare to find coaches like that,” agreed Kerr, “but as rare to find players like Michael and Tim. There are so few people on earth who are as talented and driven, but also very different personalities. You are lucky to find that player you can build a bond with and build around and do it the right way and have the right coach. Tim and Michael couldn’t be more different, but Tim loves the game as much. It’s why I laugh when people say Tim would win and hang them up. Tim isn’t going anywhere. It’s what he loves the most. You saw how difficult it was for Michael to walk away. They have that incredible joy for the game and the drive to success. I think all the time how incredibly lucky I was to happen to be a part of two of the best organizations in history. I played a lot more in Chicago, so I have more feeling for the Bulls. But I would emulate the Spurs model if I were building or coaching. The way the Bulls did it was pretty unorthodox, almost impossible to replicate with the personalities involved, the weird relationship with Jerry (Krause) and Phil and Michael, so much stuff going on. It was always entertaining, but sometimes dysfunctional. But it worked because of the people. The Spurs are the more stable model of what you’d like to achieve of the way to keep a coach, owner and general manager and the star player all on the same page without a crack in the armor.”

LeBron and his supporting cast

-- So who is LeBron James better off with? Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson? Or Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem. It hasn’t quite been put that way, but James came up with the comment of the series (I’m excluding Hibbert’s post Game 6 stupidity) when James said he was back in his Cleveland days in the Game 5 victory. You know, when he had to do it himself and had no help and everyone blamed everyone but him like kings in the middle ages. No surprise then to hear Dwyane Wade after Game 6 suggest perhaps LeBron shoots too much and looks after himself most with Wade’s comments about doing more to get he and Bosh opportunities. Hey, and we thought James wanted to pass too much. Could there be trouble in paradise? Having to play a Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers can do that. Has anyone looked at that Pacers’ backcourt? Anyway, given how big an ego Wade has and how much a diva he has become in recent years, you can imagine how much that comment galled him. Wade is the South Beach’s Sasha Pavlovic? It seemed James understood with that heartfelt, at least in appearances, greeting to each teammate as they walked off the court after the Game 6 loss in Indiana. James and Wade used to come to all the press conferences together. Haven’t seen that as much lately. By the way, for the playoffs thus far starters and LeBronaires Wade, Bosh, Chalmers and Haslem are averaging a combined 41.6 points per game. In the 2007 playoffs when the Cavs lost in the Finals to the Spurs, starters Ilgauskas, Gooden, Pavlovic and Gibson combined for 42 points per game, slightly more than LeBron’s Miami Vandellas.

Hill imparts wisdom as he calls is quits

-- Though I’ve written it before, Grant Hill made it official Saturday before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals that he was retiring after 18 seasons in the NBA. I’ve written he should easily be a Hall of Famer given two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal, his great six-year run to start his NBA career and six All-Star appearances and all-NBA five times despite terrible injuries. Hill was working the TNT broadcast and said he had no regrets about his career. But he did say the one regret he had was returning too soon from his surgeries. It was perhaps a message to the vultures who have descended much of the season on Derrick Rose about not understanding what coming back too quickly from major surgery can mean. It’s also been interesting to watch the progress with baseball’s Derek Jeter, who when he had ankle surgery last October was projected to be ready by April and was cleared to run in three months. He’s still out for perhaps months with what’s said to be a small crack. C’mon, man up. It’s small! No, no one’s suggested that. Interesting that in New York, of all places, they are more understanding and sympathetic about serious injuries.

Who’s calling the shots in L.A.?

-- Is that Clippers personnel man Gary Sacks with a sword sticking out of him? Sacks surfaced to fall on his sword and tell the Los Angeles Times Chris Paul had nothing to do with Vinny Del Negro being let go. Sure. Paul hasn’t been shy about dictating to the Clippers, which is no big deal in the NBA anymore. Pat Riley went out and got Dwyane Wade a whole team. It’s been no secret the Clippers added Willie Green and Matt Barnes on Paul’s suggestion. With Paul a free agent, that’s how things work. Is it ever more obvious Mike Brown was fired in Cleveland in hopes of retaining LeBron James as Brown is now back? But Paul likes his innocent image and didn’t much like being fingered when owner Donald Sterling and then Del Negro basically suggested it was Paul. Those around Paul say he’ll probably take a tour around teams to shake up the Clippers some, but that he absolutely loves Los Angeles and will resign. But the Clippers also have been planning to sacrifice Del Negro just in case. That’s why insiders say Del Negro was kept on a contract situation to match Paul’s deal so naming a new coach was another thing the Clippers could offer Paul in their recruiting pitch. Yes, he does mean a lot to the franchise. So it will be interesting to see how it plays out. The rumors, though unsubstantiated, around L.A. suggest Paul specified a coach that matches someone like Byron Scott, his former coach in New Orleans who was let go by the Cavs. The Clippers have leaked out a bunch of names, but you can be sure they only are awaiting Paul’s approval. And why not?

NBA news and notes

-- So what about LeBron going to the Clippers to play with Paul and Blake Griffin? They’d have to find someone to take DeAndre Jordan’s one year at about $11 million, which probably wouldn’t be that tough as seven footers aren’t so available. Yes, we’re pretty much going to go through most of these other than the Bobcats. The most common speculation has with the decline of Dwyane Wade and indifference of Chris Bosh that James would opt out for the Lakers or Cleveland after next season. But it’s not so easy for James in regaining a lot of his popularity to become a mercenary again. Plus, Pat Riley builds teams pretty well. And as successful as this Heat team has been, it’s not exactly a Riley team with its lack of rebounding. The series with Indiana and with the Bulls with their size has to make Riley think, and when he does he moves. Obviously, the most discussed name for potential trade has been Chris Bosh. Not that these playoffs have been helping his value. But he is a talent. This would depend on Houston stealing Dwight Howard from the Lakers. But if they could, then you could see the Rockets jumping on Bosh for something like Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. And wouldn’t Riley love to have a defensive star seven footer like Asik to gobble up rebounds and pose that interior defensive threat the Heat doesn’t have? Averaging 10.1 points this season in just 30 minutes shows Asik can score. Which is much easier playing with LeBron James.

-- Why do you buy a basketball team to then cut costs? It seems to continue with Memphis with Lionel Hollins apparently parting ways as well after Rudy Gay during the season and various reserves. Hollins likely will get a big contract somewhere after piloting the Grizzlies to the conference finals, though swept, and the speculation is the Grizzlies get one of his assistants. How long before Zach Randolph with his big contract is on the market?...That Marvin Williams trade for the Jazz keeps getting worse as he’ll be out into next season with Achilles surgery. Also, Danilo Gallinari already is having his timetable pushed back from ACL surgery and now is said to be at least into February after previous January return estimates…Tim Hardaway Jr. related a classic Don Nelson story to Minneapolis media during his working with the Timberwolves. Minnesota with the 10th pick went for guard Pooh Richardson as then Minnesota coach Bill Musselman said he had asked buddy Nelson about Tim Hardaway and Nelson assured him Hardaway’s knees were too bad to play in the NBA. “Nellie wouldn’t lie to me,” Musselman reportedly was quoted saying. Nelson then took Hardaway at No. 14 and he became and All Star and Musselman became an ex-coach. Yes, that’s also why Nelson’s Hall of Fame induction took so long.

-- Masai Ujiri, who was first hired by Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, was hired by the Raptors to replace Colangelo as the chief basketball decision maker with Colangelo now the president, but only as a consultant and sounding board for Ujiri. Ujiri has begun replacing much of the staff and probably soon coach Dwane Casey going into his last season on his contract. … Former Bull Brian Scalabrine has been working out in Los Angeles with several rookie big men in this draft, including Pitt’s Steven Adams, Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk and Kansas’ Jeff Withey. … Interesting that Salt Lake City media reporting increasing involvement of former coach Jerry Sloan with the Jazz organization as Sloan also was at the Chicago draft camp with Jazz staff. Karl Malone is returning to work this summer with Jazz big men Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors. Sloan has talked with several teams about coaching, but with family in Salt Lake has been uncertain about moving. Friends say he’s anxious to work and does regret passing up some jobs. … Physical play always comes up at some point in the playoffs, as it has in the Eastern Conference finals along with accusations, which this time have been at Shane Battier going for opponents’ knees. Though its’ confusing because he’s usually flopping from a bogus charge call. Flopping also has become a subject of discussion, and while there are all sorts of suggested remedies and the NBA even fined LeBron James, I go back to my long held belief to stop rewarding players running halfway across the court and jumping in front of someone. That’s not defense. The league—and don’t blame the officials for all these replay stoppages and disputes as this is league mandated stuff—continues to reward this bogus defense for some reason despite wanting to open up the game. As most everyone agrees, the calls are close. So make them blocks. Once you stop rewarding so many offensive foul calls, players will stop. But then it will be tough as the officials like to make that running charge call. It gets a lot of TV time. … It’s not like NBA general managers know what makes a great coach unless his name is Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. So they mostly check what’s worked lately, and Tom Thibodeau should be flattered. He’s apparently the new model with Charlotte’s Steve Clifford the closest model (their sixth coach in 10 years, by the way) and veteran assistants who didn’t play (except for places you never heard of) suddenly in vogue, like Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and Mike Malone in Sacramento. Now the trick is to watch more film than Thibodeau. Good luck with that. Five years ago, Thibodeau could barely get an interview. Now teams are requesting samples of his DNA. Also, with the abundance of Spurs staffers getting coaching and general manager jobs, some longtime assistants are adding to their resumes that they stayed at a San Antonio Holiday Inn.