Monday, December 10, 2007

Jason Moran at the Stone

Jason Moran at the Stone

A gentle snow—more a seasoning in the air than an urgent statement of precipitation-- fell intermittently on Manhattan Friday afternoon and it felt utterly incongruous until Jason Moran’s second set at The Stone that night.

Moran’s set introduced one of the pianist’s new projects, a trio with coronet player Ron Miles and guitarist Mary Halvorson, at the Stone, the artist run space that often host works in progress by performers capable of filling much larger and less off the beaten path venues. Their best moments recalled the fluid movement of water but they cohered with an elegance that stunned.

Moran’s deeply ruminative chords set the tone of the eight song program which included originals by all three members and a sweet cover of Duke Ellington’s “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” Moran is fond of creating deep velvety chords and that transition into hard staccato rhythmic figures. In the jazz piano pantheon, it’s his link to Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams and to a lesser degree Andrew Hill, and on this evening, the softer patterns were his connection to Miles soft blurry tone. The spiky rhythms were his bond to Halvorson, a player who looks a bit like a gussied up Lisa Loeb, but plays like a direct descendant of Derek Bailey; she created hard dissonant figures and oddball rhythms.

The unusual harmonies of a piano guitar coronet trio washed across back and forth through the sold out crowd that buzzed with anticipation before the show and left looking cleansed from the experience. If only the aftermath of snow in the city was so pleasing.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

What's Wrong with the Mavericks

What’s Wrong with the Mavericks

Last season the Dallas Mavericks set the NBA ablaze finishing with a 67-15 mark, one of the best regular season records of all time. Then they crashed and burned in the playoffs losing in the first round to a Golden State team that eked into the postseason on the final day of the regular season thanks to a loss by the other team vying for the final playoff spot. There are ugly losses, really ugly losses then there are historically bad losses and that defeat fell into the third category. In addition, the Mav’s playoff meltdown occurred after they choked away an NBA Finals in 2006.

So when they started out 12-8, in ’07-’08, it was reasonable to wonder if something was amiss. That’s a pace for a 49-33 season, something that would lead to dancing in the streets of Manhattan, but far less than what’s expected in Dallas.

There might be something wrong, but nothing shows up on my radar. The Mavericks defense is a bit softer this season so far, but good defenses often take a while to gel. At this point of the ’05-’06 season Detroit, a perennially rugged defensive club also ranked badly in Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), so the Mav’s 20th ranking among 30 teams doesn’t concern me much. On offense, the Mavs can still score on anybody, ranking fifth in Offensive Efficiency.

The Mavs have made some nice changes to their roster bringing in swingman Eddie Jones and pivotman Brandon Bass. Their roster looks very, very sound. So why are they on pace to finish almost 20 wins behind last year’s team?

The answer is twofold. Last year’s team had a much better record than their play indicated. The ’07 Mavericks had a point differential that was consistent with 61 wins not 67 and those things tend to “correct” themselves over time. And this year’s team has a win differential of a 52 win team, not a 49 win one so far. Thus we’re talking about a nine win difference.

That’s easier to explain; the division is much, much tougher. Last season New Orleans was mediocre (a 39-43 record) and Memphis was outright horrible (22-60). This season New Orleans is playing like a powerhouse (13-7) and Memphis is much tougher than their 6-13 record indicates. Their point differential is consistent with a team that’s 9-10. Or to put a finer point on it, Memphis, the last place team in the Southwest Division is playing well enough to be a second or third place team in four of the other five NBA Divisions.

Let’s say that the Mavs are a 58 win club, a 58 win club goes through some stretches where they play like a 49 or 50 win club and some where they look like a 65 win club. It’s the natural statistical distribution of things during a long season.

There’s another unquantifiable thing going on with the Mavs. Last season they approached every game as if it offered redemption for their Finals foldo. This season, they’ve all but said that the regular season is a warm up for the playoffs. If the Nets said that, I’d worry about overconfidence, but the Mavericks have won 57 games or more in five of the last six seasons. They are an elite team that has improved in key ways after almost every season. They look formidable this season too, but formidable isn’t as earth shaking as it used to be.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Heat are Cold

In general I like to think ill of good teams and good of bad ones. It's proof that growing up in Chicago affected my sportsmanship more than going to high school in Texas.
One exception to that rule is this year's edition of the Miami Heat. At 4-14, I'm ready to dismiss them from then discussion of relevant NBA teams. Yes, they are only eighteen months removed from a championship parade, but more relevantly they are an old team six months removed from being swept out of the playoffs in the first round. The track record of old teams in decline can't be pretty (I'm not going to do that research now, though).
Those thoughts came to mind last night when I chose not to watch the Heat-Blazer game. My mind is already made up on both teams. The Blazers are a very good young team that would be well served by a brief relocation to Portland Maine this spring in order to qualify in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
Instead of wondering who the Heat will take with their lottery pick, I began to wonder if it was worth it. In 2003-04, the Heat were an exciting up-and-coming young team. Then that youth (except Dwayne Wade) was gutted in exchange for Shaq, Antoine Walker and Jason Williams. A title ensued. Without the deals there wouldn't be a banner hanging from the rafters of American Airlines Arena. However, without the deals, the Heat would enter this season with a nucleus of Wade, Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. Put a halfway decent supporting cast around those three and you have a championship contender whose five year window is opening rather than an old team whose shorter window of contention just slammed shut.
As a team exec, I'd take the banner. As a fan, I'm less sure.

What would you choose.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Knicks 100 Nets 93

About midway through Wednesday night’s Knicks Nets game, I had to stop myself from asking my editor for space in the Friday paper. I felt as if the game was one great big “I told you so” for me. I’ve been saying that having Marbury and Crawford together and having Curry and Randolph together on the court at the same time was counterproductive due to overlapping skill sets. Now without Marbury and Curry out, the Knicks have their most efficient offensive showing of the season.

The Knicks typically put up 101.8 points per 100 possessions. Last night they were on pace for 114.9, a mark if sustained would have them among the top offenses in the league. With only one low post offensive threat and one threat to shoot ballhandler on the floor at any given time, the Knick offense really thrived ; they committed only ten turnovers and only two in the second half.

The Knick offense came at the expense of a Nets team minus Jason Kidd who missed the game due to migraines, and this game underscores that while Kidd’s reputation is for circus passes on the fast break, his greatest value is on defense. All of his teams have improved markedly in Defensive Efficiency, points allowed per 100 possessions, after his arrival, and his absence last night was telling. The Nets were on pace or 106.9 points per 100 possessions last night, a slight improvement over their putrid season average of 100.8, but their defense suffered due to Kidd’s absence.

While watching the game, I was keeping tabs on Philadelphia who was making Boston work for their win. The Sixers have a poor record but they’re not doormat. This weekend’s two game set should be a competitive pair of games.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Some notes from the Game

So finally, after five seasons of writing an NBA column, I got to go to a game and what an interesting game to start with.
Coming off of an embarrassing, no humiliating defeat in Boston, the Knicks figured to either mail it in to a chorus of boos, or provide the Garden faithful with a rousing and maybe empathic confirmation of their loyalties.
Somehow they did both.
For three quarters the Knicks played the same caliber of lethargic ball that got them hammered at Boston. That Milwaukee was only up by 15-20 points tells you more about the difference between the Buks and Celts than anything else.
Then in fourth quarter Fred Jones--yes Fred Jones--came in and sparked a rally. He d'ed up on whichever Buck guard he was marking and Balkman and Jeffries combined to shut down the middle. Suddenly the Bucks could no longer waltz through the paint for easy buckets, and the outside shots were now contested and not dropping so readily. Jamal Crawford got hot, and the Knicks got a win.
But this win was a guilty pleasure.
The first three quarters made two things abundantly clear. The coaching staff has quit trying. The Bucks played the game as if they'd read their scouting reports on the Knicks. The Knicks showed no such preparation. It was as if they were shocked to see Desmond Mason driving the lane. Most teams know that the right approach is to challenge him to hit outside shots. The Bucks on the other hand, backed off of Lee and Balkman whenever they had the ball on the perimeter, knowing that neither possess the range to hurt them from out there. Hell, I could see Yi Jianlian tell Balkman "go ahead" when he backed off of him as Balkman held the ball 20 feet away. There was no urgency to get the ball out of Redd's hands either.
Further abettting the sense that the coaches were not "in the game" were the substitution patterns which pretty much went according to fouls. Any player with two fouls in the second quarter was benched until the second half.
The other thing that's painfully obvious from being present at the game is how poorly the Randolph/Curry thing is going. You can't have two guys calling for the ball in the low post simultaneously. They cancel each other out and clog the middle with defenders.

The crowd was feisty, and often during the first three quarters fans stood up and went on LONG rants at the team. Even with the dramatic fourth quarter and the standard Garden chants of Dee-Fense and what not, the loudest cheers of the night were the Fire Thomas ones, the second loudest for the Knick City Dancers. The third loudest were for Jianlian who seems to have an Ichiro effect. There were large contigent of Asians, often wearing Yankee or Mets hats, cheeing Yi's every move.

The game reinforced my suspicion that when Thomas is let go (I don't thnk "if" is in the equation anymore), the Knicks will start to win a respectable amount of games.

The talent is there but right now it's being very badly used.