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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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?

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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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it Comes to Rebuilding, the Knicks Should Look to the Nets

poppernets1The New York Knicks are rebuilding. Their plan is to trade Carmelo Anthony and assemble a young roster around centerpiece Kristaps Porzingis. New York should take a cue from the crosstown Brooklyn Nets, who have quietly made some nice moves over the past year in a slow climb towards respectability.

Bring up the Nets to a basketball fan and the first thing that comes to mind is what some consider to be the worst trade in NBA history. In the summer of 2013, the Nets acquired an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics in exchange for first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the right to swap picks in 2017. Due to injuries and lack of production the Nets quickly descended from supposed championship contenders to a lottery team, and those picks became extremely valuable, culminating in the Celtics receiving the No. 1 pick (which they traded to Philadelphia) this past June.

However, Billy King, the general manager who made that deal for the Nets is long gone. Brooklyn hired Sean Marks, a long-time assistant coach and member of the front office for the San Antonio Spurs, one of the best-run organizations in the league, in February of 2016. In the summer of 2016, Marks brought in Kenny Atkinson, a one-time Knicks assistant coach, who was well-respected around the game for his ability to develop young talent, to be the head coach.

Marks lacked draft picks due to the Garnett and Pierce trade so he used creative means over the past several months to acquire assets. In February, the Nets sent Croatian sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to the Washington Wizards for a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2017, shooting guard Marcus Thornton and forward Andrew Nicholson. Bogdanovic, the centerpiece of the deal, signed with the Indiana Pacers as a free agent this summer, and the Nets ended up with the 22nd pick in the draft, which they used to select Jarrett Allen, a big man out of the University of Texas.

Next, Marks used the Nets’ salary-cap space to take on other teams’ bloated salaries, for a cost. Marks was able to swipe D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft from the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. was desperate to shed salary in order to free up cap space to pursue Paul George and other free agents in the summer of 2018, so they parted with Russell in order to unload Timofey Mozgov and the $48 million remaining on his contract. The Nets also sent the Lakers the 27th pick in the 2017 draft.

This past weekend, the Nets were a willing trade partner for another team looking to dump salary, the Toronto Raptors. Toronto was anxious to unload the remaining $30 million on forward DeMarre Carroll’s contract in order to gain greater cap flexibility. The price they paid the Nets was a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second round pick in 2018. The Nets also sent center Justin Hamilton to the Raptors, who Toronto promptly waived.

Former Cavs general manager David Griffin ended talks with the Knicks.

The Knicks have been searching for a new head of basketball operations since parting ways with Phil Jackson a few weeks ago. New York had talks with David Griffin, the former general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and one of the most respected talent evaluators in the game. But Griffin walked away because the team was not willing to grant him full authority over basketball decisions or allow him to choose his own personnel. Apparently, team owner James Dolan believes that several of the current people in the front office have been so successful over the past several years as to render them indispensable.

Meanwhile, general manager Steve Mills, whose expertise is in business and relationships, not the basketball side of operations, is calling the shots. Mills inked one-time Knick and Atlanta Hawks restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. to an offer sheet for $71 million over four years. Hardaway demonstrated significant improvement in 20016-17 and has molded himself into a rotation player, but is not worth any where near that type of money. Executives around the league were shocked by the offer, and not surprisingly, the Hawks refused to match it.

Hardaway does not fill a need. The Knicks already have Courtney Lee at shooting guard, signed to a cap-friendly four-year, $40 million deal. After signing Hardaway, the Knicks do not have the cap space to add a much-needed veteran point guard to tutor first-round pick Frank Ntilikina (other than perhaps Rajon Rondo) or to take on contracts in exchange for draft picks, as the Nets have done. And good luck finding any takers for Hardaway’s contract if the Knicks later decide to trade him again. (New York traded Hardaway two years ago for the draft rights to Jerian Grant, who was later shipped to Chicago in the Derrick Rose deal.)

That is not to say that the Nets have not offered exorbitant amounts of money to young, restricted free agents. Over the past two summers, the Nets have offered Tyler Johnson $50 million, Allen Crabbe $50 million and $106 million to Otto Porter. However, those offers were within the range of the players’ perceived value, and the teams they came from elected to match them.

The Nets will be a bad team again this season and will not have their own draft pick to show for it. But they are moving in the right direction, something that cannot be said for a lot of NBA franchises, including their neighbors in Manhattan.