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Game of the Day: March 21

San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks — 8 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

I recommend for today an interconference matchup between the Spurs and Hawks. The Spurs have been playing well of late, winning eight of their last ten games, but face a very dangerous Hawks team featuring premiere scorer Joe Johnson, two promising bigs in Josh Smith and Al Horford, and sixth man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford. San Antonio counters with perennial all-star and future hall-of-famer Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.

Atlanta currently holds fourth place in the east, tied with Boston in the loss column and only percentage points behind for third place. San Antonio, given its strong play of late, appears to have a solid grip on a playoff spot, five-and-a-half games ahead of ninth-place Memphis in the West.

The Spurs won the only other game these two played earlier in the season on January 27, 105-90. Duncan had a mammoth of a game, amassing 21 points, 27 boards, and 7 assists. Johnson lead the Hawks with 31 points.

In a game like this in which the talent level is fairly equal, I look for the team who needs it more to come out on top down the stretch like this. Expect a win from Atlanta with another strong showing from Johnson and a solid effort up front from Smith

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15,000 and counting: how does he do it?

LeBron is the youngest player to reach 15,000 career points. How long until he passes Kobe?

LeBron James is a freak of nature. That’s all there is to it. The reigning MVP is basically a shoo-in to secure another one this year, heads the league in PER, plays four (or, arguably, five) positions, is a great leader for a Cavaliers team that he has established as the favorite from the Eastern Conference, dominates any opponent on both sides of the ball, doubles as an international business mogul, and stays completely out of trouble off the court.

Oh, yeah. He leads the league in scoring this year, narrowly edging out the pesky Kevin Durant right now. The bottom line: the guy can put the ball through the hoop. James, at 25 years and 79 days old, became the youngest player in NBA history last night against Chicago to reach the 15,000-point scoring mark, outpacing the previous record holder, Kobe Bryant, by, oh, only two years.

In honor of the historic occasion, I’ll attempt to account for why LeBron is so successful — specifically on the scoring end — in a number of different areas.

Athletic ability

LeBron James is the prototype for an NBA body. At 6’8″, he has the height to match up with most power forwards in the NBA, and his natural position is only small forward. Furthermore, at 250 pounds, he adds the weight that allows him to post up any defender another team can throw at him and to finish despite contact in the paint. This ability affords James more open looks than most other players at his position and more effective shots even when getting fouled or hit without a call. Naturally, according to Hoopdata, James leads the league in and-one conversions per game at 1.08 with a large lead over the field. His closest competitor in that category? Chris Bosh at 0.91 per game.

James’s rare athletic talent does not stop at his massive frame, however. His speed for his size is just as amazing. While I can’t seem to find any data about his 4o-yard-dash time or how he compares to other players objectively, from watching his game his gift of quickness is evident. Owing to his exceptional speed, LeBron can beat any one defender off the dribble and requires a double team to slow down, and even that doesn’t stop him. He can run the floor unlike anyone else and thus gets plenty of fast-break layups, dunks, and alley-oops.

Durability

While it goes hand in hand with his being in peak physical condition, LeBron rarely misses games. Staying on the court allows him to put up all those points. You can’t score if you don’t play, right?

Shooting

One of the biggest quibbles with LeBron’s game (albeit a nitpicky one because of his pure domination elsewhere) is his shooting. According to Hoopdata, LeBron shoots 74.5 percent at the rim and 52 percent from within 10 feet. Beyond that, though, his percentages drop dramatically. From between 10 and 15 feet, he shoots only 32 percent, and between 16 and 23 feet he improves to 39 percent. From three-point range, he shoots 34 percent.

At first glance, this may seem to reflect negatively on his shooting ability. However, upon closer evaluation, it’s revealed that only 23 percent of those 10- to 15-foot attempts are assisted and only13 percent of his 16- to 23-foot shots are assisted. What does that mean? LeBron is taking the vast majority of those shots off the dribble, so naturally his percentages are going to be low. Furthermore, James only take 1.2 shots per game from between 10 and 15 feet, so the low efficiency does not have a very profound effect on the completeness of his game. And the 39 percent from long two-point range is respectable, anyway.

Despite LeBron’s sublime talent at the rim, 13.2 of his 19.9 shots per game come away from it. Accordingly, a large portion of his points come from out there. Because he takes so many of those shots, defenders are forced to play close to him, giving him a lane to the rim. So despite the reputation, shooting plays a key role in LeBron’s scoring array.

Rebounding and Defensive Intensity

LeBron is, too, a great rebounder. His defensive and total rebound rates rank among those of the league’s centers and power forwards, and, again LeBron plays the 3. When James comes down with an offensive rebound, he is so good converting at the rim (as previously mentioned) that once he has the ball down that close to the hoop, he’s very likely to score. Furthermore, coupling his defense rebounding with his speed and ball-handling skills, he doesn’t need to outlet the ball and can run the transition game himself. If he gets ahead of the field, he can create shots in one-on-one or even one-on-two scenarios. Getting the rebound allows LeBron to craft a one-man game that’s nearly unstoppable.

Quite similarly, LeBron is a tenacious on-ball defender and reads the passing lanes well. He’s very good at stripping or stealing the ball from the man he’s guarding and intercepting errant and ill-advised passes. These high-I.Q. defensive plays give him possession in front of all five defenders and a free look at the rim.

Creating Free Throws

LeBron leads the league in free-throw attempts per game. Sure, some would argue, and I agree, that he could improve his free-throw shooting. Nevertheless, he hits his free throws more often than he makes his attempts at the rim, so it’s his best shot at getting a point. Lebron also ranks highly in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt at .51, so he makes the most of his drives. If he’s not making them, he’s most likely getting fouled. Shaq was a fantastic free-throw creator; he just couldn’t hit them. If he had shot just 70 percent from the line, he would’ve added another 2000 points or so to his career total. LeBron is shooting almost 80 percent this year, so those free throws are really helping his cause.

Taking Over

The last thing I’d like to discuss is how James uses his clutch ability to take over a game whenever he wants and put up points in bunches. It comes from an intangible ability that few in the NBA have — and one that everybody and their mother see in John Wall. To analyze this statistically, I’ll turn to 82games.com’s quarter-by-quarter and clutch stats. Q-by-Q stats mentioned are from the 2008 – 2009 season.

LeBron typically serves as a distributor toward the beginning of each half, attempting to get his teammates involved and on the scoreboard. As the half progresses, however, he starts to shoot more himself to assure the Cavaliers come away with the win. Below are LeBron’s quarter-by-quarter scoring stats. All numbers have been manipulated from per quarter per game to per 12 minutes per quarter per game to account for differences in playing time.

First quarter: 8.45, Second Quarter: 10.14, Third Quarter: 8.04, Fourth Quarter: 10.67.

As you can see, he puts forth his greatest scoring effort in the fourth quarter. Unsurprisingly, he led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring last year. Next we’ll turn to how LeBron stacks up in terms of clutch performance (defined as five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five or fewer points). Per 48 minutes of clutch time this season, LeBron puts up 65 points, an astonishing 15 more than Kobe. Talk about dominating in close-game situations — that’s inhuman. Furthermore, only 16 percent of his clutch-time attempts are assisted, compared to Kobe’s 19 percent. LeBron loves the energy of the tough situations. It feeds him energy and makes him an even more electric scorer.

Conclusion

It’s truly amazing everything LeBron can do. Not surprising, however, is that LeBron can channel most of his various talents into scoring the ball when he needs to. The guy is unquestionably the best player in the game (sorry, Kobe lovers), and I can’t wait to see how the offseason frenzy surrounding him turns out. He’s the present and future of this league. Any team would be stupid not to do everything in its power to try and bring him on board.

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NBA Today: March 20

  • Jeremy Tyler, the high school phenom who skipped his senior season and went overseas to play in Israel this season, quit his team.
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Game of the Day: March 20

Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks — 9 PM eastern

On the first day of the second round of March Madness, the NBA sure isn’t supplying you with a whole lot of excellent matchups to tune in to. Not that it needs to. In fact, this game is your one real option for a thrill. KG and the slumping Celtics head to Texas to take on the surging Mavs. The Celtics bring the same starpower every night: KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And they pair that with Kendrick Perkins, a young, tenacious defender at the 5, and Rajon Rondo, one of the best playmakers and rebounding guards in the game. The Mavericks counter with one of the most intimidating starting lineups in the Association after their trade with the Wizards before the deadline. Jason Kidd, after a scorching February, has returned to Earth and is coming off an 0-5 shooting performance for zero points.

In these teams’ one previous battle this season, the Mavericks came out on top, 99-90, behind a sparkling performance from perennial all-star Dirk Nowitzki, who put up 37 points on 14-22 shooting. Garnett did not play in that game, however, and expect him to bear down on the lanky seven footer and play far superior defense compared to that of Rasheed Wallace, his replacement in the starting lineup for that game. Sure, Wallace is a great defender in his own right, but he lacks the mobility to keep up with Nowitzki who takes a large percentage of his shots from the outside. Garnett, especially when fully healthy, is more agile and can keep up with Dirk.

I predict a win for Dallas, as you always have to go with the hot hand in a square-off of teams with relatively equal talent, but expect Boston to hang tough to the very end.

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Mama, there goes that man

Mark Jackson is looking for a coaching job next season.

Mark Jackson, the NBA’s second all-time assists leader, is looking for a new job. The 14-year league veteran, who now does color commentary for NBA games on ESPN and ABC and previously did the same for the Nets on the YES Network, wants to get out of the broadcasting field and pursue a basketball head coaching position. He hasn’t been specific with regard to whether he wants to coach in the NBA or college as yet, but reports say he has hired an agent to help him find a role.

Coincidentally, as far as I can tell, St. John’s University (Jackson’s alma mater) announced today they were firing six-year men’s basketball coach Norm Roberts following yesterday’s first-round exit from the NIT. Perhaps Jackson would be interested in pursuing the college ranks — and where better to do that than at the school that transformed him into an NBA player?

Jackson will, too, draw considerable interest from NBA teams, I expect. One of the greatest distributors in the history of the game, Jackson has provided quality in-game analysis from a broadcasting role for the last several seasons. Few other commentators I’ve heard have displayed a greater understanding of the game than he has.

Well, if that’s the case, where will he go? The Nets immediately come to mind. In the midst of its dreadful campaign, New Jersey needs a coach who can come in and lead, not stand there with no manifest concern for the success of the team like Kiki Vandeweghe has — Jackson has always shown a capacity for doing so. Furthermore, the Nets will be the favorites to come away with the first overall pick and, thus, John Wall in the draft, and Jackson would be a good candidate for teaching the budding superstar the ropes of the NBA game and how to balance his superb scoring ability with the point-guard skills necessary to be great in the league.

The Clippers also look like a possible destination for Jackson. Again, the leadership skills will help focus the immense talent the team features and create some way to get wins from it. Furthermore, as Jackson has no prior coaching experience at any level, Donald Sterling should be able to get him for cheap — something I’m sure he’s cognizant of.

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NBA Today: March 19

“I’ve never been asked to be out at the forefront of an organization. I never had the financial commitment to do that. Now I have. Now I’m involved. How can I not, when I’m owning 80 percent of the basketball team, not put my face on the organization?”

  • Over at SI.com, Ian Thomsen writes about how David Lee has played his way out of New York.
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Game of the Day: March 19

From now on, I’ll try each day to make a recommendation for an NBA game you all should pay attention to. I’ll try to talk about nationally televised games as often as possible, so you all can watch them. Now tomorrow, I know you’ll all be eager to watch the NBA and not any of those stupid college games (nobody watches those, right?). Accordingly, here’s my suggestion for Friday, March 19:

Utah Jazz at Phoenix Suns — 10 PM eastern

I always love watching this matchup, as it pairs teams with two of the most successful point guard–power forward combinations in the league: Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer for the Jazz and Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire for the Suns. Boozer is outstanding in his pairing of offensive fundamentals (jump hooks, turnaround fades, authoritative attempts at the rim) and his rebounding prowess. Stoudemire, whom I consider the best offensive front-court player league-wide, is absolutely devastating diving to the rim off the pick-and-roll with Nash and adds a shooter’s touch from the free-throw line and out to 17 or 18 feet. Nash and Williams bring the same consistent effort to every contest, Williams the favorite on the scoring end, Nash on the distributing end.

In the standings, the 6th-place Suns trail the 4th-place Jazz by two games, so this matchup has some playoff implications. This is the third game of a four-game series for these two teams, and the Jazz won each of the first two meetings. Boozer posted 21 points and 20 boards in the first game, while Nash contributed 15 dishes in each game for the Suns. Expect a close one, folks.

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The NBA’s Best Young Talent

Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, and Kevin Durant are three of the NBA's most promising youngsters.

As I’m wallowing in the pathetic, bracket-slaying defeats of the first round of the NCAA tournament (are you reading, Georgetown?), I thought I’d move my mind to brighter things. So despite the alarming number of franchise players that might be changing uniforms (if not just their numbers), let me highlight some of the NBA’s less acclaimed heroes — at least for today. To follow will be my ranking of the top five collections of young talent, by team, in the league.

Number Five — Golden State Warriors

The ballers from the Bay would certainly be higher on this list if they were fortunate enough to have a mentally stable coach who knew anything about cultivating the young’ns or running a decent defense. After all, they have the greatest plethora of players with lofty limits: Andris Biedrins, Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Anthony Morrow, Anthony Randolph, C.J. Watson, and Brendan Wright could all be lighting the league up in a few years in the right scenario. Hell, a few of them even are already irrespective of Don Nelson’s treachery. In that list, there are two elite shooters (Curry and Morrow), a nearly unstoppable scorer (Monta Ellis)  if you can keep him of the moped, a tenacious rebounder in Biedrins, who must’ve attended the Josh Boone free-throw training camp this summer, two superbly athletic 4s (Randolph and Wright), and a solid distributor-scorer hybrid in Watson. It’s a shame their rare talents can’t be put to effective use. Otherwise, I’d be scared to face this roster in a few years.

Number Four — Memphis Grizzlies

At the beginning of the season, everyone was worried about the egotistical bombshell the Zach Randolph-Allen Iverson duo would set off. Fortunately, AI is long gone, and Randolph is playing like an all-star. But behind him is an abundance of young talent that is the primary responsibility for the Grizzlies’ being in the playoff hunt in the West with about a month to go. That squad — featuring Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and O.J. Mayo (I won’t include Hasheem Thabeet for now) — brings some serious talent for years to come in Tennessee. We all know what Mayo can do: score consistently and shoot the lights out. Gasol is the third best young center in the league behind Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez. Rudy Gay has the range of a 2 and the inside scoring ability of a 3, and Mike Conley’s line against the Nets a week ago shows you what he’s capable of when he plays with confidence. The only problem for the Grizz here is hoping that Gay isn’t snatched away this offseason. He’s a restricted free agent, so Memphis will have the opportunity to match any offer submitted, but he may command too high a price to hold on to.

Number Three — Sacramento Kings

I really liked the three-way trade that the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, and Kings put together at the trade deadline. And I liked it for all three teams (especially for the Knicks, but that’s another story). The Kings were able to ship off the highly talented Kevin Martin, who clearly wasn’t meshing with rookie phenom Tyreke Evans in the back court. As a result, they brought in Carl Landry, sixth man of the year contender, who’s a force on the block. The breakdown of the Kings’ young talent is as follows: rookie Omri Casspi, Evans, Landry,  Jason Thompson, and Spencer Hawes. Evans is an absolute beast, and he proved all his critics wrong who didn’t believe he could play the point-guard role at the highest level. Don’t get me wrong. He still has a lot to learn about balancing his immense scoring ability with the distributing necessary to make the team better, but the talent is absolutely all there. Give him a couple years, and he’ll be on a short list with Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, and Derrick Rose for the league’s best 1. Casspi has exceeded all expectations this season, shooting the ball very well (especially from three-point territory). He figures to be a contributor on this team for the next several years. Landry, as I mentioned, is a fundamental standout in the low post, and Jason Thompson brings much-needed athleticism to the front court. Hawes has the shooting touch of a 2 from the 5 position but lacks a true back-to-the-basket game and can’t bang down low. Expect the Kings to make an effort to trade him anyway to make space on the roster for Landry and Thompson, and if the Kings see fit, DeMarcus Cousins.

Number Two — Portland Trailblazers

The Blazers stick out already from the group of teams above because they are already a legitimate playoff threat. Unfortunate injures have cost them some hope this season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a serious factor in May and June in seasons to come. The success of the Blazers obviously focuses around Brandon Roy — the 2-guard who has established himself as one of the NBA’s stars. As a complement to Roy, though, the Blazers also feature LaMarcus Aldridge, Jerryd Bayless, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Greg Oden. Now some of you may think I’m a fool for labeling Oden as a true young talent in the league, as he has been injured so often in his first three seasons after being drafted #1 overall. But his per-minute numbers on the court are simply astounding. Give him a couple more seasons to get his health issues on track before making a final judgment. Aldridge, whom the Blazers acquired in a draft-day deal from the Bulls for Tyrus Thomas a few years ago, has the ability to be a quality power forward in the NBA. Coupling a nice shooting touch with moderate post-up skills, he needs to work on bulking up and getting stronger to reach his maximum potential. While the Blazers settled for a lower ceiling in trading Thomas for Aldridge, I think the latter’s fate will end up better than the former’s. Fernandez will be a contributor in the league as a nice shooter with surprising athleticism, but he won’t be much of a star. Stuck behind Roy on the depth chart, he won’t be given much of a chance in Portland anyway. Bayless and Batum are two potential-based players. Bayless, at times, has demonstrated his distributing ability, but needs to get on the scoreboard more. Batum is a factor on defense, and can shoot some, but he, too, needs to muscle up and work on getting to the rim more often.

Number One — Oklahoma City Thunder

Were you honestly expecting anything else? The Thunder clearly have the greatest assembly of young talent in the NBA. And it shows with their 41-25 record and current 5th-place standing in the stacked Western Conference. My friends, it all begins with Kevin Durant. The man is ridiculous: a lanky 6’9″ with the rebounding skills of a seven footer, the speed of a point guard, the sweet shooting stroke of best best 2-guards in the league, and an uncanny ability to get the ball through the twine from any spot or any angle. Durantula is truly a terror to opponents. Assume he’ll win multiple scoring titles during his tenure in the league. The one thing he does need to work on is his vision. Even the best scorers need to give the ball up sometimes, which is what separates LeBron from the rest of us: mere humans. As if the roster needs anything else, the Thunder have so much more talent than that. Russell Westbrook has the athleticism of Derrick Rose with the vision and passing ability of Rajon Rondo. If he were to complete the cycle with the shooting of Steve Nash, he’s be unstoppable (and he’s very, very far from achieving that kind of shooting touch, which is his biggest weakness). James Harden still needs some time to cultivate, but he has shown he can score in bunches and has dispelled many of the rumors that his shooting ability would be a hindrance. Jeff Green, also 6’9″, plays with the force of someone 6’11″. Unfortunately, he shoots like he’s Ray Allen. He needs to tone down the three-point shooting and work the ball inside where he can out-muscle other players his size. What’s the one weakness for the Thunder? They lack a center who can make a true impact, and B.J. Mullens, as I expected, was a waste of a draft pick in attempting to alleviate that hole. Nevertheless, this is one team that certainly has no need to make any drastic changes as the years come and go. Combine this talent with the players’ miraculous ability to stay healthy and on the court, and they’ll be a factor in the West race for the next five or more years.

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Reviewing the Mavs’ Winning Streak

Well, I’m glad that’s over. The Dallas Mavericks’ alarming 13-game winning streak came to an abrupt end on Saturday after a 128-94 thrashing by the Knicks (or should I say “David Lee and company”). While a run of that many games is certainly something worth league-wide appreciation, I’m of the ilk that it wasn’t all that special. Mr. Hollinger over at ESPN tends to agree with me, ranking the Mavericks only 14th in his most recent power rankings.

The schedule

The main reason I scoff at the manifest significance of the streak is the sheer lack of difficulty of the Mavs’ schedule over the span — like, my high school team probably could have won about half those games. Seriously, though, the final seven games of the streak were against sub-.500 opponents at the time (the Bobcats are now three games over .500 after an also-impressive six-game winning spurt, but they have lost to the Nets twice this year. Really.). Now, I don’t mean to discount Dallas’s quality wins over the Suns, Magic, Lakers, and Hawks, but if you throw in one quality team to replace one of the powderpuff squads, and that streak may have only been six or seven.

You got lucky, babe

The Mavericks were fairly fortunate during the streak, too. Teams and key players (read Kobe) underperformed, letting Dallas come away with wins it didn’t deserve. I remember reading that this was the longest winning streak in history in which a team never defeated an opponent by double digits — and I really don’t think that was a coincidence. Take, for instance, the Mavericks’ win over the Bobcats, 89-84, in Charlotte, where MJ’s team is an astonishing 24-8. Charlotte shot only 39 percent from the field (compared to its season average of 45 percent), and would have won if not for a paltry 31 points in the second half. Against the Lakers, Kobe had an off night, shooting 9-23, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol took only 17 shots combined (compared to their usual 23), and the team shot only 29 percent from deep. It’s another game the Mavericks won (101-96) that they should have lost. Don’t forget about an unimpressive three-point win over the 29th-best Timberwolves and an equally subpar nine-point victory over the Nets that had the Mavericks down 33-14 after the first period and and up by only two with under four minutes to play.

The Kidd is hot tonight

Dallas would never have been so successful during this 13-game stretch if not for the unusually shining performance of Mr. Jason Kidd. The dude outdid his season averages in most categories, notably: minutes (38 vs. 36), points (14 vs. 10), rebounds (7 vs. 5.5), assists (10.3 vs. 9.3), steals (2.4 vs. 1.9), and three-point percentage (44% vs. 42%). He even put up a line (19 points, 16 rebounds, 17 assists) against the Hawks that was the only one of its kind (15+ points, 15+ rebounds, and 15+ assists) since Kidd last did it in 1996. Before that, the last guy to do it was some guy named Magic.

There you have it. Sure, the Mavericks are a great team and figure to be in the top three in the Western Conference. And I may just be a tad bitter with regard to the Mavericks’ recent success given that the Nets have their first-round pick in the draft this year. But truly, the streak wasn’t all that much to write home about. To prove they’re a truly elite team, they’ll have to show me when it counts, and not melt down like they have so many times in the past.

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Welcome

Welcome to Saving the Skyhook, my new blog about all the important news in the NBA.

What you’ll find here

Ideally, I’ll be posting my thoughts on the biggest issues the league’s facing on a daily basis. In many cases, I’ll be posting multiple times every day. Owing to my busy college schedule, weekday posts will typically be shorter reactions to the bigger headlines in the NBA for the day, while weekend posts will typically be lengthier features — analyses, predictions, rants, etc. — in response to the week that was. Once I really get going, I’ll start to implement some daily and weekly theme posts (similar to SportsCenter’s Top 10, for instance).

What’s with the name?

I’ve always loved the skyhook. In fact, when I step out on the court it’s my go-to scoring move, and I’m a 5’9″ white guy. Seriously, though, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the master of one of the most deadly offensive weapons in the league, and it’s one of the main reasons he’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. For some reason, though, no one uses it anymore. Players rely too much on physicality in the current game, abandoning the finesse of previous decades. Obviously there’s something great about watching Dwight Howard throw down a two-handed slam in the face of his defender, but he could improve his game and his reputation so much by consistently hitting the 10- to 15-foot skyhook. Well, it would make him pretty much unstoppable. So I’d love to see this shot make a resurgence into the NBA game, but I doubt it will ever happen. Maybe players feel emasculated by it — like how Shaq continually denies Rick Barry’s offers to teach him to shoot free throws underhand. Nevertheless, I’d put my style to the side to feature an indefensible shot. That’s just my two cents.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions?

Feel free to e-mail me at daniel.savitzky@gmail.com with any comments, suggestions or recommendations you might have, whether they be for links to include on the page, topics you’d like to see me write about, or a specific type of feature you’d like to see. I’m always open to your ideas. Thanks, and look out for my first true NBA-related posts in the coming days.