Podcast/Blog

Podcast… Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports

Yaron Weitzman, Grand Central Publishing

When a group of private equity bigwigs purchased the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011, the team was both bad and boring. Attendance was down. So were ratings. The Sixers had an aging coach, an antiquated front office, and a group of players that could best be described as mediocre.

Enter Sam Hinkie — a man with a plan straight out of the PE playbook, one that violated professional sports’ Golden Rule: You play to win the game. In Hinkie’s view, the best way to reach first was to embrace becoming the worst — to sacrifice wins in the present in order to capture championships in the future. And to those dubious, Hinkie had a response: Trust The Process, and the results will follow.

The plan, dubbed “The Process,” seems to have worked. More than six years after handing Hinkie the keys, the Sixers have transformed into one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. They’ve emerged as a championship contender with a roster full of stars, none bigger than Joel Embiid, a captivating seven-footer known for both brutalizing opponents on the court and taunting them off of it.

Beneath the surface, though, lies a different story, one of infighting, dueling egos, and competing agendas. Hinkie, pushed out less than three years into his reign by a demoralized owner, a jealous CEO, and an embarrassed NBA, was the first casualty of The Process. He’d be far from the last.

Drawing from interviews with nearly 175 people, Yaron Weitzman‘s Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports (Grand Central Publishing, 2020) brings to life the palace intrigue incited by Hinkie’s proposal, taking readers into the boardroom where the Sixers laid out their plans, and onto the courts where those plans met reality. Full of uplifting, rags-to-riches stories, backroom dealings, mysterious injuries, and burner Twitter accounts, Tanking to the Top is the definitive, inside story of the Sixers’ Process and a fun and lively behind-the-scenes look at one of America’s most transgressive teams.

Podcast…John Beilein at Michigan: A Basketball Revival

Tim Rooney

McFarland Publishers

https://megaphone.link/LIT2037792261

John Beilein at Michigan: A Basketball Revival: Tim Rooney ...

When John Beilein arrived at University of Michigan in 2007, the once-proud men’s basketball program was adrift after the fallout from a scandal and failing to reach the NCAA Tournament for nine straight seasons. Beilein slowly re-built the program on the foundation of a strong culture, which emphasized teamwork, integrity and discipline.

During his twelve years in Ann Arbor, Beilein became the program’s all-time winningest coach, reached two national championship games, won four Big Ten championships and produced eight NBA first-round draft picks. He left Michigan for the NBA in 2019 as the greatest coach in school history.

In an age of ethical lapses throughout college basketball, Beilein succeeded without a hint of impropriety. As much a teacher as a coach, he consistently identified undervalued recruits, taught them his innovative offensive system and carefully developed them into better players–an approach to the game that drove his unprecedented rise from high school junior varsity coach to head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.  In his new book John Beilein at Michigan: A Basketball Revival (McFarland, 2020), Tim Rooney examines his tenure at Michigan in detail for the first time.

Podcast… Red Holzman: The Life and Legacy of a Hall of Fame Basketball Coach

Mort Zachter

Sports Publishing

https://megaphone.link/LIT6327274874

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Many books have been written about Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusscherre and the other great players on the New York Knicks championship teams of the 1970s, though much less attention has been focus on the orchestrator of those teams: Red Holzman. Holzman was a fantastic player and scout before compiling 613 wins (a number which hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden) over 14 seasons as the coach of the Knicks. Holzman was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame and was named one of the top 10 coaches in NBA History.

But not much is known about the soft-spoken and private Holzman, as he was the type of person to downplay his own accomplishments. Former MSG president Dave Checketts once said, “Red was the finest human being I’ve ever known.”

In Red Holzman: The Life and Legacy of a Hall of Fame Basketball Coach (Sports Publishing, 2019), author Mort Zachter has taken on the challenge of sharing this coach’s incredible story. From humble beginnings as the son of immigrant parents growing up in Brooklyn, Holzman paved a path of excellence at every level. From his time in the Navy to breaking into the NBA and his rise through the coaching channels, author Zachter leaves no stone unturned.

With interviews with those who played with, against, and for Red, including Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Bob Cousy, and Walt “Clyde” Frazier to name a few, the life of a basketball pioneer—one that has since been held quiet—is shared for the first time.

Podcast…The City Game: Triumph Scandal and a Legendary Basketball Team

Matthew Goodman

Ballantine Books

https://megaphone.link/LIT4207237893

The 1949-50 CCNY Beavers basketball team were one of the unlikeliest of champions in sports history. CCNY was a tuition-free in Harlem, New York, intended to give working class students the best education possible. The school was comprised of minorities, many of whom were the immigrants or children of immigrants. In 1949-50, the CCNY squad, led by legendary coach Nat Holman, shocked the basketball world by becoming the first and only school to win the N.I.T. and N.C.A.A. tournaments in the same scene. At a time when college basketball was much more popular in New York than the fledgling NBA, the CCNY boys became the talk of the town and heroes to millions.
The following season, several members of the CCNY team, including the entire starting five, were arrested as part of a massive point shaving scandal that had engulfed the entire collegiate basketball scene in New York City. Overnight, the CCNY boys went from heroes to villains. Their dreams of playing in the NBA were dashed and gambling scandal became a stigma which attached to them for the rest of their lives. The scandal was so persuasive that many members of the New York Police Department were caught up in it, leading to the resignation of the chief of police and the mayor.
Matthew Goodman‘s The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team (Ballantine Books, 2019) is not just a book about basketball. It is a journey through life in New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a window into how big cities ran in the mid-20th century, an inside look at the world of sports gambling, a story of corruption, and ultimately, a tale of working class people and the decisions they are faced with. Through the use of meticulous research, Goodman delves into the complex characters of the basketball players involved and how the scandal affected their lives moving forward. The reader is left to ponder one crucial question: Would I have taken the money had I been in their position?

Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact

Earl Campbell was a force in American football, winning a state championship in high school, rushing his way to a Heisman trophy for the University of Texas, and earning MVP as he took the Houston Oilers to the brink of the Super Bowl. Asher Price‘s exhilarating blend of biography and history, Earl Campbell: Yards After Contact (University of Texas Press, 2019) chronicles the challenges and sacrifices one supremely gifted athlete faced in his journey to the Hall of Fame. The story begins in Tyler, Texas, and features his indomitable mother, a crusading judge, and a newly integrated high school, then moves to Austin, home of the University of Texas (infamously, the last all-white national champion in college football), where legendary coach Darrell Royal stakes his legacy on recruiting Campbell. Later, in booming, Luv-Ya-Blue Houston, Campbell reaches his peak with beloved coach Bum Phillips, who celebrates his star runner’s bruising style even as it takes its toll on Campbell’s body.

Drawing on new interviews and research, Asher Price reveals how a naturally reticent kid from the country who never sought the spotlight struggled with complex issues of race and health. In an age when concussion revelations and player protest against racial injustice rock the NFL, Campbell’s life is a timely story of hard-earned success—and heart-wrenching sacrifice.

Three Seconds in Munich: The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Final

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https://newbooksnetwork.com/david-a-f-sweet-three-seconds-in-munich-the-controversial-1972-olympic-basketball-final-u-nebraska-press-2019/

One. Two. Three.

That’s as long as it took to sear the souls of a dozen young American men, thanks to the craziest, most controversial finish in the history of the Olympics—the 1972 gold-medal basketball contest between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world’s two superpowers at the time.

The U.S. team, whose unbeaten Olympic streak dated back to when Adolf Hitler reigned over the Berlin Games, believed it had won the gold medal that September in Munich—not once, but twice. But it was the third time the final seconds were played that counted.

What happened? The head of international basketball—flouting rules he himself had created—trotted onto the court and demanded twice that time be put back on the clock. A referee allowed an illegal substitution and an illegal free-throw shooter for the Soviets while calling a slew of late fouls on the U.S. players. The American players became the only Olympic athletes in the history of the games to refuse their medals.

Of course, the 1972 Olympics are remembered primarily for a far graver matter, when eleven Israeli team members were killed by Palestinian terrorists, stunning the world and temporarily stopping the games. One American player, Tommy Burleson, had a gun to his head as the hostages were marched past him before their deaths.

In his new book Three Seconds in Munich: The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Final (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), David A. F. Sweet relates the horror of terrorism, the pain of losing the most controversial championship game in sports history to a hated rival, and the consequences of the players’ decision to shun their Olympic medals to this day.

What Do the Knicks Have In Frank Ntilikina?

frankie smokes

The Knicks are a quarter of the way through the season and optimism abounds around their rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina. It is early enough in Ntilikina’s career that teammates and fans can gush over his strengths, without dwelling on his weaknesses. After all, the kid is just 19 years old, the second-youngest player in the league behind Indiana’s Ike Anigbogu. He has plenty of room for growth.

Ntilikina, AKA “Frankie Smokes,” does not have the hops of Dennis Smith Jr. or the marksmanship of Malik Monk, two players the Knicks passed on when they selected the Frenchman with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft. Ntilikina’s super power is his 7’0” wingspan.

His 6’5” frame and massive wingspan made him an impact player upon arrival in the NBA. Frankie Smokes uses his long reach and keen instincts to disrupt opposing offenses by harassing elite ball-handlers, such as Dwyane Wade and James Harden. The rookie is sixth in the league with 2.3 steals per 36 minutes among players who have played a minimum of 300 minutes (NBA.com) and ranks seventeenth with 3.4 deflections per 36 minutes (NBA.com).

Ntilikina’s defense at the point of attack has helped elevate the Knicks from the 25th ranked defense last season to No. 17 this year (NBA.com) and has drawn comparisons to Knicks legend and broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who like Ntilikina earned playing time during his rookie season with his defense. Clyde has been impressed with the young Frenchman and believes he will be even more effective once he learns to improve his positioning and picks his spots for steals.

Ntilikina’s unflappable demeanor is also reminiscent of Frazier, who did not draw a technical foul over his 13-year career. Ntilikina was tested by none other than LeBron James a couple of weeks ago at Madison Square Garden. James, who openly criticized the Knicks for selecting Ntilikina over Smith Jr., bumped the rookie after making a basket. Ntilikina held his ground and extended his arm, shoving LeBron out of his way, without losing his cool. It was a coming of age moment for the rookie which earned the respect of his teammates and Knicks fans.

The big question surrounding Ntilikina’s game is what kind of offensive player will he be. He is not a brilliant passer like fellow rookies Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons or possess elite speed like Sacramento Kings rookie De’Aaron Fox. However, he does appear to have a high IQ and typically makes the right pass. Coach Hornacek has felt comfortable leaving the neophyte on the floor in crunch time of close games.

The biggest concerns regarding his offensive game are his lack of aggressiveness and poor shooting. Ntilikina is far too content to simply make the next pass, rather than probe the defense. He is averaging just 3.3 drives and .3 free throw attempts per game (NBA.com), woefully low numbers for a point guard, even given his limited minutes.

Ntilikina will likely never be an elite pick-and-roll player, considering his modest foot speed. But he has demonstrated excellent timing on the league’s most essential play and an instinctive ability to freeze the man defending the screener in order to create space for himself or the roll man. As he puts on weight, he should also learn to use his 6’5” frame to create space in the lane to get his shot off and get to the line. However, he must develop more of an attacking mentality in order to benefit from those skills.

The Frenchman rarely looks for his own shot and appears to pull the trigger reluctantly when he does so. That has resulted in abysmal shooting numbers, including 33.6 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from downtown. However, there is reason to believe that his shooting numbers will rise along with his confidence. The point guard shot 48.5 percent from the field and 43.1 percent on threes in 32 games with Strasbourg of the French LNB Pro A League last season (Basketball Reference). He also shot 40 percent from deep in 14 games for the FIBA Champions League.

Chris Herring, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article a couple of years ago which demonstrated that international players typically struggle from behind the arc in their first season in the NBA, only to rebound. Ntilikina’s teammate, Kristaps Porzingis, is a prime example. KP shot 33.3 percent from three in his first season, 35.7 percent in year two and his shooting 39.8 percent on three-pointers in this, his third season. Ntilikina’s shooting percentages should increase in the coming seasons, which will open more driving lanes for him.

Ntilikina also has to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. His turnover percentage of 21.4 ranks in the bottom four percent at his position (Cleaning the Glass). This is not an area that the Knicks should be overly concerned with. Rookie point guards typically struggle with turnovers.

Frankie Smokes has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender, with the ability to switch onto multiple positions. His offensive game has plenty of room for growth and by all accounts, he is a hard-working kid intent on maximizing his potential. He does not have the athleticism or quickness to dominate games on that end of the floor, though with his height and instincts, he could become an above-average offensive player and a solid building block alongside Porzingis.

 

 

 

 

Is Hardaway Justifying His Contract?

hardaway

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s four-year, $71 million contract with the New York Knicks was panned as the worst signing of the 2017 NBA offseason. Hardaway developed into a solid rotation player during his two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, but executives around the league were shocked by the size of the deal. ESPN’s Zach Lowe called the contract “ludicrous,” and his colleague at ESPN, Kevin Arnovitz, reported that the Hawks, who had the right to match any deal signed by Hardaway, a restricted free agent, were thinking somewhere in the area of $45 million to retain the streaky shooting guard.

The signing was made even more confounding by a peculiar chain of events. Hardaway was drafted by the Knicks and played his first two seasons in orange and blue. New York traded the shooting guard to the Hawks during the 2015 draft in return for Atlanta’s first-round pick, Jerian Grant. A year later, the Knicks included Grant in a deal with the Bulls for Derrick Rose. This summer, New York renounced its rights to Rose in order to bring Hardaway back to the Big Apple. NBA fans chalked it up as another boneheaded move by an incompetent Knicks front office.

Then something surprising happened. Hardaway began playing the best basketball of his career.

The Knicks made the former Michigan Wolverine a full-time starter for the first time  and he has capitalized on the opportunity. Hardaway is the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, averaging 18.1 points per game. More impressive has been his progress in other areas of his game. Hardaway has been active on the glass and a more willing passer than in years past, averaging career highs in rebounds (4.6) and assists (3.6) per 36 minutes. He has already amassed two double-doubles this season, something he did not do once during his first four seasons in the league.

Hardaway continues to take advantage of his athleticism by getting out on the break and has become more of a scorer, as opposed to just a shooter. His 3.8 free throw attempts per 36 minutes is also a career high. No. 3 plays with tremendous energy and he is not afraid to take a big shot late in the game. Jeff Hornacek often calls Hardaway’s number in the closing possessions of quarters.

There are still significant holes in Hardaway’s game. His shot selection has improved since his first run with the Knicks, though far too often, he still heaves up ill-advised three-pointers or worse yet, long twos. He has not developed the ability to break down defenses off the pick-and-roll, preferring to rely on clear outs instead. His shooting numbers are low this year (41.8 percent from the field and 31.8 from three) though that may be due to a combination of a higher usage rate and New York’s lack of a play-maker at point guard.

Defense was Hardaway’s biggest shortcoming when he entered the league, and Atlanta’s coach Mike Budenholzer would not play him until he could hold his own on that end of the floor. Hardaway no longer looks lost defending the pick-and-roll nor is he regularly caught looking at the ball while his man beats him back door, but he still tends to die on screens and is a subpar defender according to most metrics.

Still, the positives have clearly outweighed the negatives for Hardaway this season as demonstrated by his 16.2 player efficiency rating, which is well above his career average of 13.5.

Does that mean that Hardaway has justified his $71 million contract? Not exactly.

Hardaway deserves credit for working hard to improve his game and exceeding the expectations of most NBA insiders. His contract can no longer be deemed ludicrous. It is not comparable to Joakim Noah’s $72 million deal. The Knicks would be able to find takers if they decided to trade the shooting guard down the road.

However, well-run organizations sign players for below-market value. That way they can afford the additional pieces necessary to contend for a championship. They do not ink players to exorbitant contracts in the hopes that the player elevates his game to live up to the contract.

Hardaway is still too inefficient on both ends of the floor to be among the two or three best players on a contender. Yet, he is being paid like one, which contributes to preventing the Knicks from adding the two or three all-star or near all-star level players they would need to compete for a championship.

Knicks’ management has made a commitment to building around young talent. One of the benefits of young talent is that it comes cheap. Hardaway did not. The Knicks could have used the cap space spent on Hardaway to acquire cheap, young talent and/or draft picks much like the Nets did when they took Timofey Mozgov off the Lakers’ hands with D’Angelo Russell as the sweetener.

Throwing that much money at Hardaway demonstrated a lack of vision and poor understanding of the market. Hardaway’s strong start to the season does not change that.