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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LeBron James Leads the Cleveland Cavaliers Back to the NBA Finals

LeBron James has entered some rarefied air. He has led a team to the NBA Finals for the fifth straight time, a feat not accomplished since Bill Russell's Celtics ruled the league in the 1950s and 1960s. James does not seem to have quite the same spring in his step that he had even last season but he has performed at a very high level in the 2015 playoffs.

At The Roar, I examine the three phases of James' career and describe how he has evolved since his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers: 

LeBron James Stamps his Authority as the Cavs Head Back to the NBA Finals

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:47 PM

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

LeBron James is Not a Pass First Player but He is a Great Passer

LeBron James is at his best when he is in attack mode. He is a tremendous scorer and it is his great scoring ability that enables his passing skills to fully flourish. I don't understand why so many people describe James as a pass first player when he is actually one of the most dominant scorers in pro basketball history. He won his two championships because he accepted the burden of being a big-time scorer against elite teams during the postseason, after failing to win in his previous Finals trips precisely because he was too passive.

My newest article for The Roar explains why it is important for a great player to attack the defense and describes the difference between just passing the ball and actually threatening the defense with a pass:

LeBron James is Not a Pass First Player but He is a Great Passer

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 PM

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How Valuable is James Harden?

According to WinShares, James Harden was the best player in the NBA during the 2014-15 regular season--and LeBron James barely cracked the top ten and Rudy Gobert checked in at 15th, meaning he supposedly deserves to make the All-NBA Third Team.  If you buy what "advanced basketball statistics" sell about Harden, then you also must buy what those numbers say about James and Gobert.

I don't buy any of it. James Harden is a very good player but he is in the mold of Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury, not LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.

In my newest article for The Roar, I look at the case for and against the idea that Harden is an elite player:

How Valuable is James Harden?

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:13 PM

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Second Round Recap/Conference Finals Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of three of the four second round series. It looked like I would go 4-0 before the L.A. Clippers collapsed against the Houston Rockets in one of the most stunning non-injury related come from ahead losses in NBA history. That series made my brain hurt, because the prediction that I really wanted to make is that neither team would win, even though that is obviously impossible. The funny thing is, it kind of seems like neither team won; the Rockets did not show up for more than half of the series and then the Clippers disappeared in the final three games. The team that stumbled the least backed into the Western Conference Finals, a series that should be quite an eye-opener, but more about that later.

The reason my brain hurt during the Rockets-Clippers series is that I have good reasons to believe that neither team is a legitimate championship contender. Over the years, I have stated that J.J. Redick is not good enough to be a starting shooting guard for a playoff team (let alone a championship contender), I have opined that Chris Paul is too small to be the best player on a championship team and I rejected the notion that James Harden is good enough to be the best player on a championship caliber team. Obviously, when these teams face each other one set of those narratives will be "disproved"--at least until the next round.

After Dwight Howard came to Houston, I wrote, "When healthy, Howard is the best big man in the NBA and a top five player overall. He can turn a mediocre team into a playoff team and a playoff team into a championship contender." In a battle between two teams that I find equally ill-equipped to win a championship, maybe I should have picked Houston based not only on home court advantage--which carried the day to a great extent in game seven after some raggedness in the first six games--but also based on Howard's reemergence. No one seems to be noticing or commenting much about Howard's recent dominance, which is odd considering that for several years prior to his injury issues Howard was widely recognized as an elite player. Howard appears to be healthy now and he has had a major impact for Houston in the playoffs. Everyone understands that Bill Russell was Boston's best player even though he was not the team's leading scorer--which is not for one moment to suggest that Howard is as good as Russell or Houston is as good as Russell's Celtics--but that understanding is lacking regarding Howard and the Rockets.

Howard is the 2015 NBA playoff leader in rebounds (13.8 rpg) and he ranks second in blocked shots (2.5 bpg), trailing only Anthony Davis, whose New Orleans Pelicans made a cameo playoff appearance before being swept. Howard is shooting .588 from the field and even though his free throw percentage is lousy he draws a ton of fouls and thus helps Houston get into the bonus early, which pads James Harden's scoring totals by giving Harden extra free throws every time he flops even in non-shooting situations.

I disagree with the idea that Harden has somehow validated himself based on the Rockets beating the Clippers. Here is a capsule review of what happened in that series. In game one, Harden had nine turnovers as the Rockets squandered home court advantage despite Chris Paul sitting out due to injury. In game two, Harden played well as the Rockets evened the series. In game three, the Clippers blew out the Rockets 124-99 as Harden padded his box score totals (he scored nine of his 25 points in the fourth quarter when Houston never cut the deficit to less than 20 points). In game three, the Clippers routed the Rockets 128-95. This time, Harden padded his numbers in the third quarter, scoring 10 points while the Clippers expanded their lead from 60-54 to 103-79. Harden played very well in game five (26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Rockets staved off elimination with a 124-103 win.

Game six was the turning point of the series, as the Clippers returned home with a 3-2 advantage. The Clippers stormed out to a 19 point lead. Harden sat out all but a few seconds of the fourth quarter as the Rockets made one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history. How often has a supposedly MVP level player been benched for the fourth quarter of an elimination game as his team comes from behind to win? I heard someone compare this to game six of the 1992 NBA Finals, when Scottie Pippen and four reserves led a huge Chicago comeback with Michael Jordan on the bench. Give me a break! Jordan returned to the game to finish matters off alongside Pippen (the Bulls won 97-93 to clinch their second consecutive title) and Jordan led both teams with 33 points on 13-24 field goal shooting. Jordan played 43 minutes in that game. In contrast, Harden shot 5-20 from the field and finished with a -21 plus/minus number (every other Houston starter was +10 or better) while playing 30 minutes.

In game seven, Harden scored a game-high 31 points on 7-20 field goal shooting--but three other players (including Howard) had better +/- numbers. I am not a big believer in +/-, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is very telling that Harden's plus/minus numbers in the playoffs consistently indicate that the Rockets are winning despite him and not because of him, regardless of his individual statistics. Harden's plus/minus number through 12 playoff games is -.3. For the entire playoffs, the Rockets have actually been outscored slightly when Harden is in the game. Howard's plus/minus number is 1.3. For comparison purposes, consider the 2015 playoff plus/minus numbers of the leading regular season MVP candidates: Stephen Curry (9.6), LeBron James (6.4), Chris Paul (3.1). Former MVP Derrick Rose had a 6.2 plus/minus number. Anthony Davis posted a -5.0 plus/minus number but that is skewed because his team was severely outmatched and got swept by Curry's Warriors. Plus/minus is not the be all, end all statistic; Draymond Green (12.7) is the 2015 playoff leader and no one thinks that he is the best player in the NBA. However, all of the people who scream and shout that Harden is the best player in the NBA must explain why Houston's playoff run thus far has largely been accomplished despite and not because of Harden.

Why did I say that the Golden State-Houston series will be an eye-opener? Harden ran his mouth weeks ago, declaring that Golden State is not that good and that he deserved the MVP over Curry. Now is put up or shut up time. If Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should demand the opportunity to guard Curry. When Cleveland Coach David Blatt drew up an end of game play that did not involve LeBron James shooting the ball, James nixed that idea in a hurry before taking (and making) the game-winner. It is one thing to flap your gums during the regular season and talk about how good you are; now is Harden's chance to put his money where his mouth is. Also, if Harden is really the best player in the NBA, then he should be in the game when the outcome is decided and he should be the primary player deciding that outcome.
 
Golden State swept Houston 4-0 during the regular season and Curry outperformed Harden individually in those games. As ABC's Doug Collins pointed out, regular season head to head records do not always foreshadow playoff results; teams have more rest and can make more adjustments during the playoffs. It also must be noted that Howard missed two of those games. Maybe an energized Howard will make a big difference, but I think that Curry will turn this series into a personal showcase and the Warriors will advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. I am tempted to say Warriors in five but I will go with Warriors in six.

Meanwhile, LeBron James reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the fifth straight season, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA's Final Four after taking Miami there each of the past four years. Even with Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury and Kyrie Irving hobbling, James received a lot of help from his teammates. James had a an epic performance in game five versus Chicago (38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocked shots and no turnovers in 41 minutes) but he is shooting just .424 from the field during the playoffs.

James is the best all-around player in the NBA but he has only been at his best sporadically during this postseason. That will not be enough against a deep, balanced Atlanta team that sent four players to the All-Star Game and won a franchise-record 60 games. The Cavaliers need for James to be a big-time scorer while also accepting the challenge on defense. James cannot hide behind the "I am a pass-first player" mythology in this series. Yes, James is an excellent passer and his passing opens up opportunities for his teammates but James' teams have always been built around his scoring prowess; it is not fair to his teammates for him to suddenly decide not to shoot or to settle for outside shots instead of driving into the paint. If James becomes passive then he throws his own team out of rhythm; we have seen James do this on the biggest stage several times (2007 NBA Finals, 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, 2011 NBA Finals, 2014 NBA Finals) and if he does it versus Atlanta then the Cavaliers have no chance.

James' erratic shooting and questionable shot selection during the 2015 playoffs are cause for concern but I think that James very much wants to win a championship in his first year back in Cleveland. James left unfinished business behind when he went to Miami and he is eight wins away from ending Cleveland's long championship drought. If he cannot focus and bring his best game now, he may never finish that business; a crop of new, young stars is emerging and James is already showing signs of physical decline even though he can still perform at a very high level.

The Hawks peaked early during the regular season and seem to have been coasting ever since. They have not been overly impressive during the playoffs but the disrespect card will undoubtedly motivate them in this series. They feel like they have been overlooked and they know that many people are picking Cleveland. The Hawks own home court advantage and that could matter if the series goes seven games (just ask the Clippers).

Throughout NBA history, we have often seen matchups of the best player surrounded by a good supporting cast facing an ensemble of really good players. On the surface, it would seem like a group of really good players should be able to nullify the best player but most of the time the team with the best player wins, though James has been on the wrong end of that a few times. I expect that James will have his best series of 2015 and the Cavaliers will win in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 PM

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

LeBron James Gets by With More Than a Little Help From his Friends

It turns out this was not Derrick Rose's moment. After Rose's Chicago Bulls took a 2-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Cavaliers ripped off three straight wins to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. James had an epic performance in Game Five (38 points on 14-24 field goal shooting while also contributing 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocked shots in Cleveland's 106-101 victory) but he shot just .399 from the field during the series.

My newest article for The Roar looks at James' overall performance so far in the 2015 playoffs:

LeBron James Gets by With More Than a Little Help From his Friends

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:30 PM

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Rockets-Clippers Series Providing Insight Regarding James Harden's Value

After falling into a 3-1 hole, the favored Houston Rockets are one home win away from eliminating the L.A. Clippers and advancing to the Western Conference Finals. I picked the Clippers to win this series and I will stick with that prediction even though the home team has won the vast majority of game sevens in the NBA.

Even if Houston wins game seven, though, I will state for the record now that I will be very surprised if James Harden is the primary factor. If Houston wins it will be because Dwight Howard dominates and Houston's deep supporting cast steps up.

I have been justifiably critical of Houston General Manager Daryl Morey in recent seasons because the Rockets--despite the supposedly huge advantage of utilizing "advanced basketball statistics"--have as many playoff series victories since 2010 as the moribund New York Knicks (one). However, Morey has done a good job of putting together a nice roster to surround Dwight Howard, even if many people are still convinced that James Harden is Houston's best player.

Yes, Harden is leading the Rockets in scoring versus the Clippers (24.5 ppg) but he is shooting just .408 from the field and he has committed a series-high 28 turnovers. The Rockets have been outscored by 16 points when he is on the court. During Houston's do or die game six road win, the Rockets fell behind by 19 points with Harden in the game. Then, Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden for the fourth quarter and the Rockets made a highly improbable comeback to post a 119-107 victory. Harden scored 23 points on 5-20 field goal shooting and had a plus/minus number of -21, while every other Houston starter had a plus/minus number of +11 or better.

Plus/minus is a noisy statistic of limited utility in small sample sizes but in this case it confirms what the eye test proclaims: Harden accumulates individual numbers but he is not well-suited to being the best player/first option on a championship-contending team.

The best player in the series so far has been Blake Griffin. He is averaging 26.8 ppg on .553 field goal shooting while also contributing 12.5 rpg and 4.7 apg. Griffin disappeared in the fourth quarter of game six and the Clippers need for him to be strong for all four quarters in order to prevail in Houston today.

Chris Paul is supposedly the Clippers' best player but the Clippers stole home court advantage with him out of the lineup and very nearly took a 2-0 lead with him on the shelf. As always, his box score numbers during this series look good (20.0 ppg, 10.0 apg) but where was he when all the Clippers had to do was preserve a huge lead at home in order to punch their ticket to the Western Conference Finals? The diminutive Paul tends to wear down over the course of long playoff series and Clippers' fans have to hope that the fourth quarter of game six is not a preview of all four quarters of game seven.

It was pretty funny to see Harden on the bench and Paul largely silent while the outcome of the series hung in the balance during the final stanza of game six. 

Media members will keep talking about Harden and Paul but the series will be decided by Griffin and Howard (who is averaging 17.8 ppg on .574 field goal shooting plus 13.7 rpg and 2.5 bpg). Harden might shoot the Rockets out of contention but if he is the cause of Houston winning--or even on the court during a decisive Houston run--that will be unexpected given the way this series has gone so far.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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Poor Shooting Predictably Dooms Grizzlies

Earlier this season, I caught some flack for writing that not only would the Memphis Grizzlies make an early playoff exit due to their lack of outside shooting but that--contrary to popular belief--they did not fit the mold of the proverbial "team nobody wanted to face."

I never said that Memphis is not a good team or even that it would be easy to beat the Grizzlies in a playoff series; I just said that Memphis has a glaring flaw and that because of this flaw if I were an NBA coach I would rather face Memphis in a seven game series than most of the other Western Conference playoff teams.

Given a choice of battling Golden State, Houston, L.A., San Antonio or Memphis, I would prefer Memphis every time. The Warriors perform at an elite level at both ends of the court, the Rockets have a good roster even though James Harden is overrated, the Clippers have a legit MVP-caliber player in Blake Griffin and the Spurs have a championship pedigree. In contrast, Memphis has a plodding, predictable style of play that can be broken down over the course of a seven game series. It might take six or even seven games to do so but it can be done.

Memphis Coach Dave Joerger knows his team's fatal flaw and he mentioned it after Golden State eliminated the Grizzlies in six games to advance to the Western Conference Finals: "We won 55 games, and we have something that other people have to really scheme against. We found in Game four that they made a nice adjustment. Basically, they just jammed it up and dared us to shoot it from the perimeter."

The Grizzlies play hard, they are a good defensive team and they can extend a playoff series against a superior opponent--but they cannot make outside shots and therefore their inside advantage can be neutralized in a seven game series. 

Memphis took a 2-1 lead before Golden State rattled off three straight wins but if you understand basketball you never doubted that Golden State would eventually prevail. Memphis relies on slowing the game down and pounding the opponent into submission. A team that pushes the pace, sags off of Memphis' perimeter players and crowds Memphis' big man duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will beat Memphis every time over the course of seven games because Memphis shoots so poorly. Memphis might wear down an opponent early in a series but in the long run Memphis' big guys wear down because the defense focuses on them and ignores their teammates.

In game four, Memphis shot .375 from the field and .222 from three point range. Randolph and Gasol shot 12-29 (.414). Golden State won 101-84.

In game five, Memphis shot .398 from the field and .267 from three point range. Randolph and Gasol shot 14-34 (.412). Golden State won 98-78.

In game six, Memphis shot .374 from the field and .250 from three point range. Randolph and Gasol shot 12-37 (.324). Golden State won 108-95.

Some people will look back at this series and insist that it was a tough fight because Memphis took two of the first three games but the reality is that this series was not close at all. Golden State dismantled Memphis three straight times. 

In the first half of game five, 2015 NBA MVP Stephen Curry shot 5-8 from three point range, while the Grizzlies combined to shoot 1-7 from behind the arc. Curry averaged 24.5 ppg in the series, 5.3 ppg more than any Memphis player. He shot .406 from three point range and he made more three pointers (26) than the entire Memphis team (25). Anyone who thinks that this Memphis team as currently constructed is likely to win a championship is misguided.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Blatt's Blunders/Houston's Predictable Collapse

Thanks to a buzzer beating jumper by LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers won game four against the Chicago Bulls to tie their series at 2-2--but only after the Cavaliers survived some potentially disastrous coaching by David Blatt. First, Blatt almost did a Chris Webber, confidently walking on to the court and attempting to call a late game timeout when his team had no timeouts left. Assistant Coach Tyronn Lue dragged Blatt off of the court and saved the day. Then, when the Cavaliers had possession with about one second left and the game tied, Blatt instructed LeBron James to inbound the ball. James replied that unless he could shoot the ball over the backboard he was not going to inbound the ball but that the Cavs should give him the ball and he would win the game--which is exactly what ultimately happened.

Blatt's first mistake is inexcusable. A coach has to know clock, score and game situation at all times. Blatt haughtily insists that is not a rookie because he coached overseas for many years but the reality is that in the NBA he is a rookie and he is in over his head. Coaching in the minor leagues is not the same as coaching in the big leagues. 

Blatt's second mistake could be debated/discussed a bit. In game three of the second round of the 1994 playoffs, the Chicago Bulls--sans the retired Michael Jordan--were set to inbound the ball with less than two seconds remaining in a tied game versus the New York Knicks. Hall of Fame Coach Phil Jackson, who had already won three NBA titles en route to capturing 11 championships, drew up a play for MVP candidate Scottie Pippen to pass the ball to Toni Kukoc. Pippen disagreed with the call, could not persuade Jackson to change his mind and then elected to sit out the last play. Pete Myers inbounded the ball to Kukoc, who drained a game-winning jumper as time ran out. Pippen was clearly a better player than Kukoc but Jackson later explained that since this was a catch and shoot situation he felt that Kukoc was the better option; Kukoc is taller than Pippen, is a better pure shooter than Pippen and had already hit several game-winning shots that season. Jackson emphasized that if there had been more time left on the clock then he would have definitely put the ball in Pippen's hands, which is what the Bulls tried on the previous play (the ball was deflected out of bounds by the Knicks, setting up the scenario for the final play).

LeBron James is a great player but not necessarily a great catch and shoot player--and he shot just 9-29 from the field prior to making the game-winner. It is not clear who Blatt intended to take the last shot but perhaps Blatt was thinking that a cold-shooting James is not the best option for a catch and shoot opportunity. However, since Blatt cannot even keep straight how many timeouts he has left I am disinclined to credit him with Phil Jackson-level strategic capabilities. In general, the optimum call is to give the ball to your best player and rely on him to win the game. Kyrie Irving is hobbling and J.R. Smith is inconsistent, so it is not like Blatt had Toni Kukoc waiting in the wings.

In the second game of yesterday's doubleheader, the L.A. Clippers took a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets with a convincing 128-95 win. Chris Paul is still hobbled by his hamstring injury but Blake Griffin (21 points, eight rebounds) continues to play at a high level and the Rockets made DeAndre Jordan (26 points, 17 rebounds) look like Shaquille O'Neal. The Rockets repeatedly fouled Jordan on purpose and he made 14 of 34 free throws. Even if the target of intentional fouling misses his free throws, the strategy still often backfires because it lets his team set up their half court defense and it puts free points on the board, taking pressure off of his team and putting pressure on the fouling team to make field goals. In this game, the strategy also extended Paul's minutes because he did not have to endure the strain of running up and down the court.

I think that intentional fouling betrays a lack of faith by the coach in his team's defensive capabilities. If you can just stop the other team mano a mano then why resort to a gimmick like intentional fouling? If the fouled player makes even half of his free throws then the fouling team has to average a point per possession just to keep pace and that is not necessarily going to be so easy to do in a half court set in a playoff series.

This series is being decided primarily based on the fact that Blake Griffin plus Austin Rivers/fractional Chris Paul is better than Dwight Howard/James Harden. All season long, we have heard that James Harden is a legit MVP candidate. We have also heard that the Clippers have no bench and are completely dependent on Chris Paul to create offense. This series is providing convincing refutations of all of those notions. Harden is not even close to being the best player on the court in this series (that would be Blake Griffin), let alone being the best player in the NBA. If you contest Harden's jumpers and refrain from committing silly fouls when he throws his body into the lane, it is easy to throw Harden off of his game. Harden's box score numbers in this series are not terrible but they are also a classic example of putting up meaningless statistics that are devoid of impact. Harden is supposed to be the best player on the second best team in the West but his team is getting killed by a squad with (allegedly) no bench, a one-legged point guard and a center who cannot make free throws. Furthermore, the L.A. Clippers are not exactly a team with championship pedigree; their recent playoff resume is not much better than Houston's, so it is not like an all-time great squad is pounding the Rockers into submission.

Some people might say that Harden's postseason struggles have nothing to do with the regular season MVP race but I think that the MVP award should go to either the best all-around player or the most dominant player (someone like prime Shaquille O'Neal). Harden can put up numbers in the regular season and he is obviously an All-Star caliber player but when he faces good teams in the playoffs he cannot get the job done because all of his skill set flaws are exposed. Perhaps the same thing is happening to 2015 MVP Stephen Curry in the other Western Conference series as well but Curry's Warriors still have a chance to tie the series tonight and head home for a pivotal game five. We will see how that turns out before pronouncing judgment on Curry; in contrast, Harden has three years' worth of disappointing playoff performances as an allegedly elite player for the Rockets and his team is already down 3-1, which is typically tantamount to elimination.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 PM

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Is This Derrick Rose's Moment?

Greatness is about domination and control. A great player is not perfect. He does not make every shot or make perfect decisions--but when the outcome is in the balance, a great player takes control somehow, someway. If his shot is off, then he controls the boards or plays tough defense. If he has not done much in the first three quarters then he owns the fourth quarter when the game is on the line.

The Chicago Bulls are a good team even without Derrick Rose; they have several good players plus a good coach. However, the Chicago Bulls have the potential to be great when Rose is healthy and anywhere close to his peak form. Rose and the Bulls currently enjoy a 2-1 lead against LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.

This week at The Roar, I explain why Rose's impact cannot be fully understood just by looking at his individual statistics:

Is This Derrick Rose's Moment?

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:12 PM

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Brief Thoughts About the Start of the Second Round

The second round of the playoffs is off to a rousing start, with three of the four underdogs winning on the road in game one. Only the Golden State Warriors held serve, routing the Memphis Grizzlies 101-86 as 2015 MVP Stephen Curry scored a game-high 22 points. The Warriors likely would have made short work of the Grizzlies in this series even if Memphis' starting point guard Mike Conley were not injured but without Conley the Grizzlies have little chance of winning. The Grizzlies lack outside shooting, which means that the good and smart teams will pack the paint against them in the playoffs and Memphis will struggle to score 90 points.

In my second round preview, I said that the Washington Wizards might steal home court advantage but that the Atlanta Hawks would ultimately win the series. Washington indeed won game one in Atlanta. I still think that the Hawks are the better team and expect that they will figure out the Wizards over the course of six or seven games.

LeBron James had one of his classic good/bad playoff games, authoring the type of performance that has long baffled me. The good part is that he nearly had a triple double (19 points, game-high 15 rebounds, game-high nine assists)--but the bad part is that he shot just 9-22 from the field, that he committed a game-high six turnovers and that he disappeared in the fourth quarter with the game on the line when his team needed him most. James is one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history, ranking third in the league this season (25.3 ppg) and fourth all-time (27.4 ppg). With Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury, the Cavs needed for James not only to produce at his normal 25-27 ppg level but to increase that production to 30 points or more. Indeed, if James had scored 27 points--all other things being equal--the Cavs would have won by one point instead of losing 99-92 to the Chicago Bulls.

James has the necessary physical abilities, basketball skill set and understanding of the game to be the greatest player of all-time--but he is not the greatest player of all-time. He has won two championships and done some great things but far too often in the biggest moments he seems to hesitate or shrink. How many times did he drive to the hoop against Chicago only to pass the ball outside to lesser players who had to take more difficult shots? In one of his late game turnovers, James drove into the lane, jumped into the air, spun away from the basket and threw the ball away. Why not go all the way to the hoop or at least take a confident midrange jump shot? Passing the ball in such situations is not unselfish and does not make him a pass-first player; his team needed him to be a big-time scorer and he shrunk from the moment. It is sometimes very frustrating to watch James play, because he just lacks something that Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and the other greatest of the greats had. I write all of this fully realizing that James can and possibly will drop 50 points in the next game--and if he does that in the effortless way that he has in the past, it proves my point: James is the best player in the world but sometimes he does not want to be the best player and carry that load.

The L.A. Clippers' 117-101 win over the Houston Rockets was very entertaining on many levels. All we heard before the game was that the Clippers have no chance without Chris Paul because the Clippers cannot even create a shot without him. That is what the "advanced basketball statistics" apparently say. The reality is that Paul is a very good player but he is also overrated. The Clippers' best player is Blake Griffin, who dominated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round as the Clippers beat the defending champions. Without Paul, the supposedly inept Clippers put six players in double figures, including three who scored at least 20 points each. Griffin produced his second straight triple double (26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists). He put his stamp on this game the way that an MVP caliber player should. Griffin joined Wilt Chamberlain and John Havlicek as the third non-guard to post back to back triple doubles in the playoffs (Chamberlain accomplished this twice). Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Baron Davis and Griffin are the only players who notched back to back 20 point triple doubles in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Houston's James Harden--who finished second to Curry in the MVP voting--fumbled the ball all over the court (a game-high nine turnovers). Harden shot 3-9 from the field and had eight turnovers in half court sets. Lo and behold, if you do not foul Harden and do not let him shoot open three pointers he is not particularly efficient! Harden's plus/minus number (-22) was the second worst of any player on either team, trailing only his backcourt mate Jason Terry (-23).

Broad conclusions should not be drawn from one game; we know that the Clippers are better with Paul than without him--but we also know that, for all of Paul's accolades, he has never led a team past the second round. Similarly, we know that Harden is not as terrible as he looked--but we also know that he has a pattern of performing poorly in the playoffs and that in his first two years in Houston he could not get the Rockets launched past the first round. This year, Dwight Howard reasserted himself as a dominant player and guided the Rockets to uncharted second round territory but the Clippers countered his inside dominance by bombing away from outside (13-31 three point shooting) and exploiting Houston's turnovers to score in transition before he could get back on defense to protect the paint.

I realize that I may be fighting a losing battle in terms of trying to convince people of the truth about Paul and Harden, just like many people did not appreciate my takes on Carmelo Anthony and Gilbert Arenas a few years back--but the reality is that Anthony and Arenas never were players who could lead a team to a title and neither are Paul and Harden. With Paul, the problem is less skill set/desire and more just a function of barely being six feet tall, but it is an inescapable reality that very few players possess the necessary physical and mental traits to lead a team to a championship. I am not overreacting to one game; I am using what happened in one game to illustrate and explain the basis for analyses that I have made about various players for many years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

How Will Cavs Fare Without Love?

LeBron James returned to Cleveland to form a younger version of the Big Three that he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh created in Miami while leading the Heat to four straight NBA Finals and back to back titles. James hoped to help Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love learn how to use their individual skills to bring Cleveland the city's first professional sports championship since 1964. After a rocky start to the regular season, the Cavs claimed the second seed in the Eastern Conference and swept the Boston Celtics in the first round--but Love suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder in the fourth game.

In my newest article at The Roar I examine how Love's injury will affect the Cavs:

How Will Cavs Fare Without Love?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 PM

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First Round Recap/Second Round Preview

I correctly predicted the outcome of just four of the eight first round playoff series, which means I have already been wrong about more series in 2015 than I missed during the entire 2014 playoffs, when I went 13-2.

For the second year in a row, I underestimated the Washington Wizards and predicted that they would lose in the first round. The Wizards once again face the top seeded team in the second round. Last year, they won game one at Indiana before losing the series in six games. I expect a similar outcome this year versus the Atlanta Hawks: the Wizards will be competitive and may even temporarily swipe home court advantage but the Hawks will prevail because Atlanta's blend of four All-Stars plus several potent role players will prove to be more effective and consistent than Washington's explosive young backcourt/crafty veteran frontcourt.

The Cleveland Cavaliers face the Chicago Bulls in the other Eastern Conference second round matchup. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland last summer, he vowed to bring the city its first professional sports championship since 1964. He joined with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to form a younger version of the Big Three that led Miami to four straight Finals and back to back titles. Not everything went smoothly; rookie Coach David Blatt looked overwhelmed at times, starting center Anderson Varejao succumbed to yet another season-ending injury (he has played at least 65 games just once in the past five years) and the chemistry between James and Love looked very poor from the outset. Then, James went into "chill" mode on the court before electing to miss eight straight games, during which the Cavs went 1-7 and could not even beat the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, a team actively trying to tank. The Cavs dropped to 19-20 after a 107-100 loss at Phoenix in James' first game back and they seemed to be going nowhere fast but then the Cavs won 12 straight games as James reasserted his status as the sport's best and most complete player. The Cavs finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and looked like legitimate championship contenders heading into the playoffs. In addition to James' stellar play, the Cavs were also boosted by midseason trades that added starting center Timofey Mozgov, starting shooting guard J.R. Smith and reserve guard Iman Shumpert to the rotation.

The Cavs won each game of their first round sweep of the Boston Celtics by at least eight points but Love suffered a season-ending dislocated shoulder in game four. Love has been much maligned throughout the season as his individual numbers plummeted from the All-NBA level figures that he posted as the best player on a horrible Minnesota team but he played a critical role in Cleveland's success. Love led the Cavs in rebounding (9.7 rpg) and defensive rebounding (7.9 dprg) while also ranking second on the team in three point field goals made (144) and third on the team in scoring (16.4 ppg); he spreads the floor on offense and even though he is a below average one on one defender he is a very capable defensive rebounder and his outlet passes ignite fastbreak opportunities. The Cavs went just 3-4 without Love during the regular season. The Cavs won three of their four regular season games versus Chicago but the one game that they lost is a game that Love missed.

J.R. Smith will miss the first two games of the Chicago series because the NBA suspended him for a cheap shot that he delivered to Boston's Jae Crowder in the fourth and final game of that series. Considering Smith's history as a cheap shot artist and the fact that he elbowed Crowder in the head, Smith is fortunate that he was only suspended for two games. Losing Smith for two games due to him being a knucklehead should not surprise anyone and is a factor that has to be considered when predicting Cleveland's playoff chances. Guys like Smith will take ill-advised shots, commit stupid fouls/turnovers and/or get suspended. Love's injury is beyond Cleveland's control but Smith's absence is the cost of doing business with him; as I said last year after Zach Randolph was suspended for game seven versus Oklahoma City after throwing a punch in game six, "Part of predicting the outcome of a playoff series is making a judgment about which team's stars are more consistently productive and reliable." Randolph is talented but he has always had knucklehead tendencies and the same is true of Smith.

The Chicago Bulls have excellent personnel and excellent coaching but something seems to be missing from the mix. The Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, Coach Tom Thibodeau's first year with the franchise, but since then injuries and a lack of offensive punch have led to first round eliminations in two of the past three seasons. A raw Milwaukee team pushed the Bulls to six games in the first round. Even with Love on the shelf and Smith unavailable for two games, I do not see Chicago beating Cleveland--unless James enters "chill" mode.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference the 67-15 Golden State Warriors swept the overmatched New Orleans Pelicans, while the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Portland Trailblazers 4-1. Golden State won the regular season series with Memphis, 2-1. Even if Memphis' starting point guard Mike Conley had not suffered a facial fracture that may force him to sit out the series, I would still take Golden State; the Warriors have a well-balanced team, while the Grizzlies' lack of outside shooting will enable the Warriors to pack the paint against Memphis' big men.

The series between the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs and the potential heirs to the throne L.A. Clippers went the distance before the Clippers won an epic, thrilling game seven at home, 111-109. I generally do not like in the moment declarations that often lack true historical context but I have been following the NBA since I was a kid in the 1970s and this was one of the best played, most exciting seventh games I have ever seen. The Spurs did not lose the game but rather the Clippers won it, with both teams performing at a high level. Chris Paul's heroics on a gimpy hamstring (team-high 27 points, including the game-winning shot with one second left) deserve praise--and his resume needs some signature playoff moments considering that he has yet to advance past the second round-- but it is worth noting that Blake Griffin authored his second triple double of the series (24 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) and he was the best player on the court, as he has been throughout the series (24.1 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 7.4 apg).

The Dallas Mavericks entered the first round with at least the remnants of a championship pedigree dating back to their title run four years ago, headlined by 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and including starting center Tyson Chandler and sparkplug guard J.J. Barea. They added Rajon Rondo, a key contributor to Boston's 2008 championship, via midseason trade but Rondo never clicked with Coach Rick Carlisle or with his new teammates. I still thought that the veteran Mavericks could pull it together enough to beat a Houston team that had not advanced past the first round since 2009. Instead, Dallas' key offseason acquisition Chandler Parsons suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the series, Rondo melted down before being exiled sans a playoff share and Houston won, 4-1. I expected better defense from Dallas, worse shooting from James Harden and some effort from Rondo. I did not expect Dwight Howard to enter a time machine and reemerge as Dwight Howard version 2009.

What should we make of the Rockets now? When the Rockets acquired Harden three years ago, I compared him to Manu Ginobili and asserted that he is good enough to make the All-Star team more than once but not good enough to be the best player on a championship team. After Harden made the All-NBA Third Team in 2013 and the All-NBA First Team in 2014, I reiterated my thoughts and expectations about Harden:

I never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a good player; he just is not an elite or "foundational" player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets.

This is what I wrote about Harden after Houston's first round loss last year:

Speaking of unreliable, James Harden could be a solid number two option or an excellent third option for a championship contender but unless or until he adds a midrange game, a postup game and some semblance of defensive awareness/effort to his skill set repertoire he will be better suited to a supporting role than a leading role. Harden averaged 26.8 ppg, 5.8 apg and 4.7 rpg in Houston's first round loss to Portland but he shot just .376 from the field and .296 from three point range; during last year's playoffs, Harden averaged 26.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 4.5 apg while shooting .391 from the field and .341 from three point range. Harden's game is based on shooting a lot of three pointers and flailing his arms while driving to the hoop, hoping to get bailed out with a foul call. Teams that deny Harden open three pointers and block his path to the hoop without fouling him can force Harden to shoot a low percentage. In other words, he is poorly suited to be the number one option for a championship contending team because when he faces elite teams he will not score efficiently and/or draw double teams, nor will he make enough contributions in other areas to offset his ineffective offensive game. The Thunder can and have replaced Harden's offense but Harden has not yet found two superstars like Durant and Westbrook who can take the pressure off of him.

Many "stat gurus" see little value in the midrange game, asserting that basketball teams should take the majority of their shots either at the rim or behind the three point line. The math behind that theory is sound--the highest percentage shots are dunks and open three pointers--and I used to take that same position with my teammates in recreational league/pickup play, arguing that a three point shooter who shoots .400 from that distance is equivalent to a two point shooter who shoots .600, but there are major differences between amateur basketball and NBA basketball. Teams below the NBA level can win by bombarding the opposition with three pointers, because the players' skill level and the coaches' acumen are not nearly as advanced as they are in the NBA. Paul Westhead had great success as a college coach and he won a WNBA title employing a fast paced approach with a high number of three point attempts but his 1980 L.A. Lakers championship team played a more conventional style.

This season, Harden is almost universally considered an MVP candidate. I understand why he is in the discussion based on his high scoring average but my leading MVP candidates for 2014-15 are LeBron James (best all-around player in the game), Stephen Curry (elite scorer/playmaker who is a very underrated defender), Anthony Davis (rising, versatile star who scores, rebounds and defends) and Russell Westbrook (explosive performer at both ends of the court who singlehandedly carried the Thunder during a tumultuous season). 

Harden has turned out to be a better player than I expected but I still do not believe that he can be the best player on a championship team and I would not take him ahead of any of the aforementioned four players. Look at what happened in the first round, when the Rockets won a series for the first time since acquiring Harden. Harden shot just 9-28 (.321) from the field in the first two games versus Dallas. Without Howard's dominating work at both ends of the court, the Rockets surely would have lost homecourt advantage and might have even been in an 0-2 hole heading to Dallas. When the Mavericks adjusted their defensive coverage to account for Howard's activity, Harden rose to the occasion with a playoff career-high 42 points on 15-24 field goal shooting in a game three Houston win.

The difference between Harden and players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James who have led teams to championships as all-around versatile wings is that Harden needs someone else to be the focal point. In Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook drew most of the defensive attention, while Harden either lived in their shadows or else played against bench players. In his first two years in Houston, Harden shot less than .400 from the field in each of Houston's first round losses; Howard had not joined the team in 2013 and in 2014 Howard was still not back to his normal self.

If Howard continues to play like he did in 2009 when he led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, then the Rockets can be a legitimate championship contender with Harden as the second best player. However, even if Howard plays at a high level I still expect the Clippers to beat the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. The Clippers showed a lot of maturity and poise in the San Antonio series and those traits will serve them well against Houston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Real MVP Candidates Rise and Shine in the Playoffs

The NBA has never established official MVP voting criteria, so there is always a debate about how to decide who should receive the award. Should it go to the best player based on the eye test, the best player based on individual statistics (and, if so, which ones?) or the best player on the best team?

I explore this subject in greater detail at The Roar:

Real MVP Candidates Rise and Shine in the Playoffs

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

What to Watch For in the 2015 NBA Playoffs

My newest article for The Roar looks at some compelling subplots in the 2015 NBA playoffs:

What to Watch For in the 2015 NBA Playoffs

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:26 PM

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Friday, April 17, 2015

2014-15 Playoff Predictions

The overall composition of the Western Conference playoff field is what I expected with the exception of New Orleans taking the place of injury-riddled Oklahoma City but the seeding is different than I predicted. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs lost to New Orleans in the  final game of the season and summarily dropped from second to sixth in the standings. I picked the Spurs to be the West's best team and that could still happen but now the Spurs may have to win three series without home court advantage to achieve this. Of course, the biggest story in the West--and in the league, period--is the 67-15 record posted by the Golden State Warriors. I picked the Warriors to finish fourth, which is probably more generous than most analysts were prior to this campaign. Stephen Curry has emerged as an MVP caliber player and should be the clear favorite for that award if you subscribe to the "best player on the best team" theory (I prefer the best player period theory and believe that LeBron James should have won every regular season MVP since 2009). I will be very interested to see how the highly touted Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies perform; I am much less impressed by those teams than many other commentators are.

In the Eastern Conference, I did not foresee Atlanta's rise from the eighth seed to the top spot. Danny Ferry put together an underrated, supposedly no-name supporting cast around LeBron James in Cleveland a few years ago and now he has built an underrated, supposedly no-name squad that finished ahead of James' new-look Cavaliers. I thought that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers had enough firepower to make the playoffs in the East despite their injury problems but both teams came up just short. The Cavaliers started the season 19-20 but after James exited his self-described "chill mode" they went 34-9 the rest of the way and looked like the best team in the league. Chicago's chemistry--on court and off court, in terms of the simmering feud between Coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office--has not been quite right all season. The other five playoff qualifiers are hardly worth mentioning, at least in terms of being legitimate championship contenders, though Jason Kidd deserves some recognition for the fine coaching job he did while leading Milwaukee to a 41-41 record, a 26 game improvement.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, followed by some thoughts about the 2015 NBA Finals.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Atlanta (60-22) vs. #8 Brooklyn (38-44)

Season series: Atlanta, 4-0

Brooklyn can win if...Brook Lopez continues to play at the high level that he reached in the final month or so of the season, Deron Williams plays at an All-NBA level and the Nets contain Atlanta's lethal three point shooting.

Atlanta will win because...the Hawks are a well-rounded squad that has completely embraced the team-first concept that Coach Mike Budenholzer learned as a San Antonio assistant. The Hawks rank fourth in field goal percentage and sixth in defensive field goal percentage; their only weakness is rebounding but the Nets are not a strong rebounding team, either.

Other things to consider: The Hawks do not have a player who would rightly be considered a superstar or a franchise player but four Hawks made the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season. The Hawks have a lot of really good players who function well together.

#2 Cleveland (53-29) vs. #7 Boston (40-42)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Boston can win if...LeBron James enters "chill mode."

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers have been on fire during the second half of the season. LeBron James reasserted himself as the best player in the league, Kyrie Irving is a dynamic scoring threat and the team's midseason acquisitions have added size, depth and three point shooting.

Other things to consider: Boston started the season 4-11 but closed the season with a 15-6 run to grab a playoff berth. The Celtics are riding a six game winning streak--including two victories against Cleveland, albeit a disinterested Cleveland that could neither move up nor down in the standings--and are probably a better team than their sub-.500 record suggests. However, the Cavs are also better than their record suggests and unless James completely disappears this should be a short series.

#3 Chicago (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee (41-41)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Milwaukee can win if...the Bucks can keep the rebounding battle close and find a way to score against Chicago's stingy defense that ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (.435).

Chicago will win because...the Bulls have a lot of playoff-tested veterans and this year's squad has added some offensive firepower with a (somewhat) healthy Derrick Rose and a revitalized Pau Gasol.

Other things to consider: Jason Kidd may not be well-liked in some NBA quarters but he is proving to be a pretty effective NBA coach. No one expected much from the Bucks this season but they surpassed some more heralded teams to earn just their third playoff appearance since 2007.

#4 Toronto (49-33) vs. #5 Washington (46-36)

Season series: Toronto, 3-0

Washington can win if...the Wizards can recapture the form they demonstrated in last year's playoffs and in the first half of this season.

Toronto will win because...the Raptors are a team on the rise in general and they match up well with the Wizards in particular.

Other things to consider: The Wizards started out 19-6 but went 27-30 the rest of the way. There is little reason to believe that they will suddenly turn things around.

Western Conference First Round

#1 Golden State (67-15) vs. #8 New Orleans (45-37)

Season series: Golden State, 3-1

New Orleans can win if...Anthony Davis plays at a historically great level and if the pressure of being the number one overall seed proves to be too much for the young Warriors.

Golden State will win because...the Warriors proved over an 82 game season that they are an outstanding team. Stephen Curry emerged as the best player on the best team, Klay Thompson is an All-NBA Team candidate and the rotation includes several other very talented players.

Other things to consider: Golden State versus a reasonably healthy Oklahoma City would have been fascinating but that possibility was dashed when the Thunder shut down Kevin Durant. Golden State versus Russell Westbrook on a solo mission would have been compelling theater. Golden State versus New Orleans is going to prove to be a mismatch, though Davis' debut on the postseason stage is worth watching.

#2 Houston (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas (50-32)

Season series: Houston, 3-1

Houston can win if...Dwight Howard controls the paint and the referees reward James Harden for flailing on his drives to the hoop. The Rockets need for Harden to shoot at least .450 from the field, draw a large number of free throw attempts and not turn the ball over at a high rate. Houston also must hope that playoff Rajon Rondo does not show up.

Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are not going to let Harden just march to the free throw line. They will contest his three point shots, exploit his lack of a midrange game and contest his drives without hacking him. Dirk Nowitzki is declining but the every other day scheduling of the playoffs should help him recover between games. Rajon Rondo has a history of rising to the occasion in the playoffs. He could be a pesky defender on Harden.

Other things to consider: We have heard for three years that Harden is a "foundational player," to quote Houston GM Daryl Morey's peculiar description after acquiring Harden. Many people think that Harden deserves the 2015 MVP. Dwight Howard missed half of the season but the Rockets went 28-12 with him--including 5-2 down the stretch to secure the second seed--and he is healthy now. There are no excuses for Harden and the Rockets to not make a deep playoff run--but I think that Harden will once again struggle as his team falls in the first round.

#3 L.A. Clippers (56-26) vs. #6 San Antonio (55-27)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

L.A. can win if...Chris Paul lives up to his press clippings as an MVP candidate.

San Antonio will win because...the Spurs finally have their full championship nucleus back in action. San Antonio won 11 straight games before falling in the final game of the season. Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard missed 18 games but he reasserted himself down the stretch as one of the best two way players in the league.

Other things to consider: This is a nightmare matchup for the Clippers. The Clippers are not particularly tough mentally and have yet to make it to the Conference Finals despite having a talented roster headlined by two MVP caliber players. These are two of the top six teams in the league but one of them will be going home very early and it will most likely be the Clippers.

#4 Portland (51-31) vs. #5 Memphis (55-27)

Season series: Memphis, 4-0

Memphis can win if...the Grizzlies slow the game down, pound the Trail Blazers in the paint and make just enough outside shots to prevent Portland from trapping Memphis' big men.

Portland will win because...LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard will be the two best players on the court and Memphis' chronic inability to make a shot outside of the paint will enable Portland to harass Memphis' big men with extra defenders.

Other things to consider: Memphis swept the season series but that does not always mean much heading into the playoffs, when there is more time off between games and a team is able to focus on the opposing team's weakness. Memphis went 5-6 in the final 11 games, slipping from second in the West to fifth (Portland received the fourth seed despite having a worse record by virtue of winning the Pacific Division title). The Grizzlies' lack of outside shooting and overall lack of scoring punch will be too much to for them to overcome.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Atlanta-Toronto, Cleveland-Chicago, Golden State-Portland and San Antonio-Dallas. Atlanta-Toronto should be entertaining but I expect Atlanta to prevail. Cleveland-Chicago will be a hard fought series; Chicago enjoys an edge in coaching and toughness but LeBron James should be enough to overcome those factors if he plays at his top level. Golden State has too much firepower for Portland. San Antonio and Dallas have contested some classic playoff series and this could be another one but the Mavericks do not have quite enough weapons and togetherness to dethrone the champions.

The Conference Finals should be outstanding. Atlanta is San Antonio East and the Hawks will try to frustrate LeBron James much like the Spurs have done two out of three times in the NBA Finals. As always, it will come down to which LeBron James shows up. If he plays his best, the Cavaliers will beat the Hawks. Golden State-San Antonio is a dream matchup, as the young upstarts seek to unseat the league's model franchise. It is tough to win three playoff series without home court advantage but if any team can do it the Spurs can. Look for the Spurs to get the split at Golden State in the first two games and win the series in six games.

The Spurs have been Kryptonite to LeBron James' Superman ever since they swept his Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals. The Spurs are smart, they are tough and they do not deviate from their principles or game plan under pressure. Coach Gregg Popovich is one of the great leaders in sports history. The Spurs will need all of those assets to win back to back NBA titles and overcome James' quest to end Cleveland's 50-plus year professional sports championship drought. Kawhi Leonard has demonstrated that he can make James work at both ends of the court. Tim Duncan is not as statistically dominant as he was when he won back to back regular season MVPs more than a decade ago but he anchors the Spurs' defense and provides an important post presence offensively. Tony Parker's speed and ability to finish in the paint put great pressure on opposing defenses.

I expect the San Antonio Spurs to win the 2015 NBA championship.

********************

Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2014-2015 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2014-2015 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 61/80 in the East and 64/80 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .781.

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 111/150 (.740)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 10 years I have correctly picked 10 of the 20 NBA Finals participants. In three of those 10 years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

I track these results separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Which Statistics Best Predict Championship Success?

Which statistics best correlate with championship success? I wrote about this subject for NBCSports.com in 2006 and then updated that article in 2009. My newest article for The Roar compares the 2015 Golden State Warriors to NBA champions since 1990: Which Statistics Best Predict Championship Success?

Also, here is a list of how the past seven NBA champions ranked in point differential and defensive field goal percentage:

2008 Boston Celtics: 10.2 ppg point differential (1), .419 defensive field goal percentage (1)
2009 L.A. Lakers: 7.6 ppg point differential (2), .447 defensive field goal percentage (6)
2010 L.A. Lakers: 4.7 ppg point differential (6), .446 defensive field goal percentage (5)
2011 Dallas Mavericks: 4.2 ppg point differential (8), .450 defensive field goal percentage (8)
2012 Miami Heat: 6.0 ppg point differential (4), .434 defensive field goal percentage (5)
2013 Miami Heat: 7.9 ppg point differential (2), .440 defensive field goal percentage (6)
2014 San Antonio Spurs: 7.8 ppg point differential (1), .444 defensive field goal percentage (8)

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 PM

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Olympic Star/ABA MVP/NBA All-Star Spencer Haywood Receives Overdue Hall of Fame Selection

Spencer Haywood, who has been selected as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2015 class, is a seminal figure in basketball history. He starred for the 1968 gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team after many black players boycotted that squad. Then, Haywood left the University of Detroit as an underclassman to play for the ABA's Denver Rockets, for whom Haywood won Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game MVP and regular season MVP honors in 1969-70 after leading the league in scoring (30.0 ppg) and rebounding (19.5 rpg). Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain (37.6 ppg, 27.0 rpg) and Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg) are the only other rookies in pro basketball history who averaged at least 30 ppg and at least 19.0 rpg.

After a contract dispute with the Rockets, Haywood jumped to the NBA and signed with the Seattle Supersonics, precipitating a legal battle that eventually reached the Supreme Court:

Haywood's case involved a tangled web of legal issues: the Denver Rockets accused attorney Al Ross of convincing Haywood to breach his contract with them, while Haywood and Ross responded that the Rockets had signed Haywood when he was still a minor and did not have proper legal representation; the NBA objected to Seattle signing Haywood before his college class had graduated; the ABA wanted Haywood to be forbidden from playing for Seattle and compelled to fulfill the terms of his Rockets' contract; the NBA Buffalo Braves felt that they should have the rights to draft Haywood and attempt to sign him before any other NBA club dealt with him.

The NBA's four year rule was declared illegal by the courts and Haywood was permitted to play with the Supersonics until the remaining legal issues were resolved. The legal wrangling wiped out most of Haywood's 1970-1971 season and he played in only 33 games for the Supersonics, posting very respectable averages of 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds. Haywood's case was eventually settled out of court, with the end result that he was allowed to remain with the Supersonics permanently.

The overturning of the four year rule had a lasting impact on collegiate and professional sports. In 1971 the NBA instituted a "hardship" rule that allowed underclassmen to be drafted as long as they proved that they suffered from financial hardship. Needless to say, such declarations were a mere formality, as noted by writer Jackie Lapin in the April 1975 issue of Sport: "…almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify--with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker’s son."


Haywood's case paved the way for players to enter the NBA before their college class graduated. He thus affected the career paths of a host of Hall of Famers, from Magic Johnson to Isiah Thomas to Michael Jordan all the up to Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Haywood's transition to the NBA was not easy. Haywood has often said that during his first season with Seattle the road team public address announcer would say Haywood's name and then declare that he was an "illegal player" who would not be permitted to participate. I have not been able to find a published account that includes that specific detail but, in a larger sense, Haywood's recollection is accurate. The Bulls sued the Supersonics for $600,000 and the Trail Blazers formally protested a 121-118 loss because Haywood's presence on Seattle's roster was an illegal distraction. According to an article in the January 4, 1971 edition of The Bulletin, Haywood sat on the bench but did not play in the games in question versus Chicago and Portland.

For decades, Haywood has felt slighted by the NBA, its players and the Hall of Fame selection process. He believes that the NBA never forgave him for winning in court and that many of the players who came after him never heard of him and/or did not appreciate his role in changing the rules. In a 2004 interview, Haywood told me, "The young guys coming out now don't get to know who Spencer Haywood is. They (the NBA) have named the rule 'early entry.' So, 'early entry' was not a person. 'Early entry' never went to the Supreme Court and fought anybody."

Haywood is very proud of his performance in the 1968 Olympics, when he averaged a team-high 16.1 ppg and set a U.S. Olympic record by shooting .719 from the field as Team USA went 9-0. He is the first teenager (age 19) to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. Haywood told me, "In '68 we went to the Olympics and we had the black boycott and all these things, Harry Edwards and everybody was against us and all these things, but we looked at ourselves as Americans, Americans first, and that we had to defend our country against the oncoming enemy, which at that time was Russia, the Soviets, whoever. It's the same thing that is going on now in terms of sports. When you talk about international sports, you talk about the Davis Cup in tennis and the World Cup, I mean countries are going nuts over this. Why aren't we as Americans looking at it as something special?"

After carrying Team USA to the gold medal, Haywood made his aforementioned spectacular ABA debut. Haywood was a dominant player in the first portion of his career. He averaged 24.9 ppg and 12.1 rpg during his five seasons in Seattle, earning four All-Star selections and four All-NBA Team selections (including First Team honors in 1972 and 1973 when he finished fifth and seventh respectively in MVP voting).

Seattle traded Haywood to the New York Knicks in 1975 and his battle with cocaine addiction tarnished the latter part of his career. He bounced around to several teams and he only averaged more than 20 ppg once in his final seven seasons. Haywood averaged a career-low 9.7 ppg in 1979-80 as a member of the Lakers' championship team, though he was suspended during the playoffs and did not receive his championship ring for several years. He spent the 1980-81 season playing pro basketball in Italy. Haywood bounced back in 1981-82 as a solid contributor (13.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) who helped Washington advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since the Bullets reached the NBA Finals in 1979.

Haywood averaged 20.3 ppg and 10.3 rpg in his 13 season professional career. His high performance level in college basketball, Olympic basketball and pro basketball should have earned him Hall of Fame induction years ago. When I spoke with Haywood about the slight, he was understandably upset but also philosophical about his situation: "What I do is I try to eat right, treat people right, and do right and pray right and just be righteous with people. In time, it will come. That's my thing."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:42 PM

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Monday, April 06, 2015

Can Advanced Basketball Statistics Really Bridge 50 Years of NBA History?

Oscar Robertson is the only player in pro basketball history who averaged a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62; he also averaged an aggregate triple double over the course of his first five NBA seasons). Russell Westbrook is having a great 2015 season (27.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.6 apg) but is it really accurate--or meaningful--to declare, as Tom Haberstroh recently did, that Westbrook's statistics project to 46.9 ppg, 14.6 apg and 12.2 rpg at the NBA's 1961-62 pace of play? I explore this issue--and the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" in general--in my newest article at The Roar:

Can Advanced Basketball Statistics Really Bridge 50 Years of NBA History?

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 PM

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Steve Nash’s Place in the Point Guard Pantheon

Steve Nash had a nice run in Dallas and won two MVPs in Phoenix before the sad denouement of his career in Los Angeles. He established himself as a very efficient shooter and deft playmaker but he never took a team to the NBA Finals. In my newest article at The Roar I examine Nash's legacy:

Steve Nash's Place in the Point Guard Pantheon

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 PM

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Enigmatic LeBron James

LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He is also one of the most perplexing members of that elite group. He has tremendous physical talent and he is a student of the game; that combination of athletic ability and mental prowess makes some of his decisions and actions baffling. How can someone who is so great just quit at home in game five of a 2-2 series?

How can someone who is so great be outplayed for extended stretches in the NBA Finals by the likes of Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard? The great multiple-time MVPs and/or multiple-time champions--including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were never the primary reason that their teams lost and they were never outplayed in their primes by non-Hall of Fame players with a championship on the line.

My newest article for The Roar examines the enigmatic nature of LeBron James' greatness:

The Enigmatic LeBron James

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:32 PM

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