This Week's Reader Mailbag: Pat Riley v. Phil Jackson, Ricky Rubio, Utah Football, & More

January 5, 2009

Our readers always provide us with good comments and questions. Here is a recent sample:

1. Yo Mike!

Your Lakers-Celtics article was on point about Phil Jackson and his rotation. Who do you rate as the better Laker coach, Phil or Pat Riley?

Reggie W.
Los Angeles

I put Riley above Jackson for several reasons. First, his rotation. Jackson gives his scrubs too much PT during the playoffs. He will often put a unit on the floor with limited options offensively, causing his team to struggle. At times it seems that Phil does not realize the season is on the line.

In contrast, Riley cut his rotation to 7 or 8 men tops come playoff time. He played his best players max minutes, and always had multiple scoring threats on the floor.

Second, Riles worked better with the talent he had available. In LA, he had good athletes who were creative offensive threats. Hence, he implemented an up-tempo attack. In New York, he had a collection of brawny forwards and Patrick Ewing, and thus, adapted to his team's talent by producing a defensive, half-court style of play.

For all Jackson's zen, meditation, and progressive views, he is surprisingly rigid when it comes to his teams. For him, its triangle or bust. This was best seen by his failure to incorporate Karl Malone and Gary Payton into the Laker attack. Rather than occasionally breaking from the Triangle and calling set plays to take advantage of their skills, he forced them to conform. Payton's transition to more of a spot-up shooter role proved ineffective, and the blame falls on Jackson.

Third, Riley was better in-tune with his team's psychological pulse, as he always looked for an inspirational edge. Jackson's more cerebral approach has also been effective, but Riley's fire gets the nod here. Had Riley been at the helm when KG and company were out-toughing LA last year, he would have been screaming bloody murder and demanding hard fouls from his bigs. Such an intense approach might have changed the series.

Fourth, Riles was a better in-game coach. If Kareem got hot, he would scrap the regular offense and simply call "5 down" (Kareem's play on the block), play after play until the defense adjusted. If Worthy was on fire, he simply cleared out a side and let him go one-on-one until he was doubled. In other words, Riley made sure to milk the hot hand, and took advantage of beneficial matchups.

Jackson is rarely so flexible. With him, a hot shooter might not get a touch for 2 or 3 possessions because Jackson will not scrap the Triangle and run an iso or set play.

Therefore, Riley is the better coach. That being said, Phil is not chopped liver. He took a Shaq-Kobe team that had struggled under Del Harris, and elevated their play to a title. He took a team with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in the starting lineup, and led them into the playoffs. He also had an excellent season when Michael Jordan retired, as he got Scottie Pippen to play some of the best basketball of his career. Jackson is excellent, but Riley is better.

2. Mike,

What is your take on Spanish basketball player Ricky Rubio? Is this guy as good as advertised?

William C.

Rubio is going to go first round, without question. He is somewhat harder to evaluate than the typical collegian because we see less of him.

On the positive side, Rubio has excellent size for a lead guard. He also has solid handles, and makes sound decisions with the ball. He is a pass-first point guard, and will simply run the set offense, rather than looking for his own stats.

However, I am not sold on his athleticism or his ability to create his own shot. While he did not appear overmatched athletically in the Olympics, he graded out as somewhat average. More important, we did not see enough of him creating offense with the shot clock winding down, or even breaking down his man in Spain's half-court sets. However, this can be partly attributed to the presence of other, more veteran Spanish stars on the floor, as Rubio often deferred to Rudy Fernandez and company.

He is very young, and will continue to improve. So there is some upside. Still, he is being overhyped to a degree. If he is the first point guard drafted and gets selected in the top 3 picks, then that will be because this year's draft class is not that strong.

A quick dose of perspective shows why.

In comparison to other leads who went top 3 in their draft class, Rubio is not in their league. In other words, he is not nearly as polished at age 17-18 as say, Jason Kidd, Baron Davis, Derrick Rose, or Kenny Anderson were at the same age.

Expect him to go first round. Expect him to be in some team's rotation. But an O.J. Mayo-Derrick Rose type rookie year might be unrealistic.

3. 2008 produced some really exciting fights. For this upcoming 2009, what is the one fight that you would like to see happen?

Sylvia G.
El Paso, Texas

Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao. The current versus the former pound-for-pound king.

Styles make fights, and this matchup would be interesting because it would pit the sport's ultimate offensive terror against a premiere defensive tactician.

More importantly, it would provide Floyd with his first true test. Manny's assault would force Floyd out of his shell, and would require the risk-averse "Pretty Boy" to take chances. Floyd simply would not have the luxury of occasionally potshotting Manny because his usual low punch volume would cost him rounds. Instead, Floyd would have to dare himself to be great by matching Manny's offense -- something we really haven't seen from him as yet.

We did see more offense from Floyd in the Hatton fight, but that scenario was different. After a few rounds, Floyd knew Hatton could not hurt him, and thus, he could safely trade with the hit-and-hold Brit. With Manny, Floyd will have to first take some shots in order to get in his blows.

It would be a legacy-defining fight for both men.

4. Does Utah deserve to be voted number 1?

Jose F.

Absolutely. Utah flattened an Alabama team that rolled through the SEC. Although 'Bama's offensive line was in disarray, what made the victory so convincing was the manner in which the Utes manhandled The Tide's vaunted defense.

Unquestionably, Utah deserved to play in the title game. So why didn't it happen?

Utah suffered from the same syndrome that has afflicted the Pac-10 for years -- East Coast bias. Simply put, many of the West Coast games start too late for the Eastern voters to watch. Despite their lack of viewing time, those voters feel no qualms whatsoever about ranking West Coast teams each week. Presumably, some of those votes are based on highlights alone.

A classic example of this mentality can be seen with Bob Ryan from the Boston Globe. Ryan, like fellow Beantown journalist Bill Simmons and broadcaster Johnny Most, is blatantly pro-Boston, and yet, he gets a free pass for it. In a profession that is supposed to be objective, his bias is simply condoned because it is "entertaining."

The problem with such reasoning is that in college football, bias skews rankings, and rankings affect who wins championships. At a minimum, the bias seems to have some influence over the Harris poll voters.

More important, bias produces opinions that are flat-out absurd. In the 1986-87 NBA season, Ryan actually thought Larry Bird should have received the MVP rather than Magic Johnson, the obvious choice.

Ryan's "wisdom" was on display again when he said of Utah, "they don't play in a good conference." Presumably, such blind assumptions affected his poll voting, and indirectly, prevented Utah from playing in the title game.

If one were to look at the conferences objectively, the Big 10, ACC, and Big East were all pathetic.

The Pac-10 had a down year by their own standards, but still proved to be an excellent league in bowl play. Furthermore, the league has a team arguably better than any other, in USC.

Then there are the media's darlings -- the Big 12 and the SEC. As Texas Tech showed, the Big 12 is not nearly as good as advertised. Meanwhile, Alabama marched through the SEC with little trouble, only to be defeated by a Utah team that proved far more troublesome than Florida.

Bottom line, the Mountain West played like a power conference this year. The elite in the Mountain West played excellent against the Pac-10. And to an objective observer, that means a lot.

For the Mountain West, their biggest mistake was picking non-conference games against fellow West Coast teams.

In the future, Utah should put an SEC team on their schedule. Hopefully, the media will be awake enough to view the game.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald

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