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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Boston Dominates Philadelphia 105-87 as the 2018-19 NBA Season Begins

We are supposedly witnessing the revival of one of the NBA's great, historic rivalries--Boston versus Philadelphia--but objectively speaking it must be said that these teams are not in the same class. The Celtics defeated the 76ers 4-1 in last season's playoffs and they continued that domination with a 105-87 win on opening night. Boston did not trail for the final 43 minutes, demonstrating advantages in team defense, depth and coaching. It is hard to see any advantages that Philadelphia enjoys in this matchup. Perhaps it could be argued that Ben Simmons (19 points, game-high 15 rebounds, eight assists) is the most individually talented player on either team but--even if that is true--that does not have much effect on the outcome when these teams play.

Keep in mind that Boston pushed aside Philadelphia last postseason despite being without the services of two injured All-Stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Irving and Hayward both played on opening night and the fact that neither one performed exceptionally well during Boston's rout only underscores the reality that while Boston will likely be markedly better by the end of the season it would seem that Philadelphia's growth potential as currently constructed is more limited. Hayward, playing under the constraints of a minutes restriction--though, due to the team's depth, none of Boston's players figure to log heavy minutes this season--finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four steals. Irving struggled with his shot, scoring just seven points on 2-14 field goal shooting, but he led Boston with seven assists.

Jayson Tatum was Boston's star of this game, with a game-high tying 23 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes. Only one Celtic played 30 minutes (Al Horford) but nine Celtics logged at least 19 minutes. Marcus Morris contributed 16 points and a team-high 10 rebounds in just 21 minutes.Thirteen different Boston players saw action (including three who just played the final minute) and every single one of them had a positive plus/minus number. Reserve Terry Rozier, who scored 11 points in 27 minutes, had a game-best +22 plus/minus number. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic in small sample sizes but the point here is that Boston has no weak links; Coach Brad Stevens can go to the far end of his bench and still summon quality players into action.

Al Horford's box score numbers do not always look impressive and last night was no exception (nine points, four rebounds, two assists--though he did have a game-high five blocked shots) but he is a major force at both ends of the court, anchoring the defense in the paint while facilitating offensive flow with his smart screens, deft passing and timely shots.

Joel Embiid led Philadelphia with 23 points but he shot just 9-21 from the field. He had 10 rebounds but also a game-high five turnovers. He is a talented player but Boston is able to guard him one on one without too much difficulty; Embiid did not post huge individual numbers and he did not attract enough defensive attention to open up opportunities for his teammates.

Simmons has everything in his tool kit but a reliable outside shot, as has been well-documented. He is often compared to Magic Johnson but the major difference is that Magic won a college championship and then won Finals MVP in his rookie season while leading the L.A. Lakers to the NBA title, while Simmons has yet to show in college or the NBA that he can have a remotely similar impact on winning. I am not saying that he is not capable of having such an impact or that he never will have such an impact but the fact is that he has yet to do so. Many of the all-time greats led teams to titles within their first three seasons in pro basketball, including Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan. Being young did not hold those players back and they did not necessarily all arrive to ready-made championship teams: Abdul-Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks were a recently formed expansion team, Erving's New York Nets had the youngest starting lineup in pro basketball and Bird's Celtics went 29-53 the season before he arrived.

One should not read too much into the first game of an 82 game regular season, but when one widens the perspective to include last season plus a skill set evaluation of each roster's players it remains to be proven that this is a rivalry in any sense other than name recognition and nostalgia.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Reflections on the Passing of Tex Winter

Legendary basketball coach Tex Winter passed away yesterday at the age of 96. Winter played basketball at USC, where his Coach Sam Barry first developed what is now known as the Triangle Offense--but Winter refined and expanded that concept when he became a coach. Winter enjoyed an outstanding career as a collegiate head coach--most notably at Kansas State, a program that he twice led to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament--and he was inducted in the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Winter's NBA coaching career began with a brief stint as Houston's head coach in the early 1970s but Elvin Hayes and company did not respond well to the Triangle. However, earlier in his career Winter had caught the eye of Jerry Krause, who vowed to hire Winter if he ever got the chance to do so.

That chance happened after Krause became the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Krause hired Winter to be an assistant coach under Doug Collins and the rest is history: Phil Jackson ascended to the head coaching position in 1989 and he promptly implemented the Triangle Offense under Winter's watchful eye. The Triangle Offense played a major role in Chicago's subsequent run of six championships during an eight year span in the 1990s and all of the key figures--including Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen--have said that they would not have won without Winter. Jackson brought Winter back to the bench when Jackson joined the L.A. Lakers and Winter was an assistant coach for four of the Lakers' next five championship teams (poor health forced Winter to retire prior to the Lakers winning the 2010 title).

Here is part of what I wrote about Winter after he was finally selected for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame :
"Every star that I've ever had on a team--except Scottie Pippen, basically--he had trouble with parts of their game," (Phil) Jackson said. Pippen embraced Winter's intricate Triangle and mastered all of its subtleties; when Michael Jordan took a hiatus from the NBA to play minor league baseball, many people wrongly assumed that Pippen would try to average 30 ppg and that the Bulls would be a mediocre team sans Jordan--but Pippen knew his strengths and limitations, so instead of trying to become a scoring champion he used his playmaking skills to enhance his teammates' performances, helping B.J. Armstrong and Horace Grant to each earn their first (and only) All-Star appearances as the Bulls surprised observers by going 55-27 and pushing the New York Knicks to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Winter's Triangle provided a structure and framework not so much for Jordan, Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant but rather for their less talented teammates...
Roland Lazenby was the Boswell to Winter's Johnson and Lazenby provided much insight for the general public regarding Winter's thought process. In 2007, Lazenby wrote an article that contained Winter's comparison of Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan and I quoted from that article in a 20 Second Timeout article:
Roland Lazenby, the fine editor of Lindy's Pro Basketball--for which I have written several articles during the past two years--recently posted an interview with Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter on the subject of the similarities between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You can read the complete interview here. Winter concludes, "I tend to think how very much they're alike. They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don't know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best." He also dismisses the idea that Bryant took bad shots during his recent scoring binge: "We study the tapes. Actually, for the most part, he's not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in. He'll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them." These statements come from the person who invented the Triangle Offense and helped Phil Jackson implement it as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to six titles; then, Jackson utilized the same Triangle Offense to win three more titles in L.A. with Shaq and Kobe--and Winter says that Jordan and Bryant are "very much alike." The one caveat that Winter offers is that Jordan held his ground on the post better, while Bryant sometimes allows himself to get pushed off of the block and toward the three point line on offense.
Winter later told Lazenby that he doubted that Jordan would have fit in well with Shaquille O'Neal, who of course won three championships with the Lakers while playing alongside Bryant. As noted above, Winter's analysis of Bryant's shot selection differed from the superficial and biased mainstream media portrayals of Bryant.

O'Neal often clashed with Winter--though O'Neal was among the many who praised Winter in the wake of the news of Winter's passing--but Bryant and Winter bonded from the start. During the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend, Bryant told me, "I love Tex. If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around. He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda. I'm telling you, it's just incredible."

After word of Winter's death was announced, Scottie Pippen tweeted, "Tex Winter was my biggest critic. He was also my biggest fan. A few words about the legendary coach who lived his 96 years as well as anyone could have..." Pippen later added, "Tex was tough on me early in my career. But he believed in me and gave me the confidence I needed to make the triangle work. He'd say, 'I'm not criticizing, I'm coaching'" and Pippen concluded, "Student of the game. Hall of Famer. 9 NBA championships as a coach. He taught me how to become a better offensive player. How to be patient on the floor. How to take criticism. How to win. Thank you, Tex. Rest In Peace."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:38 PM

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

House Call With Dr. J Podcast Featuring Isiah Thomas

Since February 2018, Julius Erving has been doing a podcast titled "House Call with Dr. J." Erving is a genial, well organized and engaging host. The podcasts sound much more like conversations than interviews. His guests have included many prominent people--including more than a few who are not basketball players--but in this article I will focus on Isiah Thomas.

Yesterday during my lunch break I listened to Erving's podcast with Thomas and the interaction between my favorite player of all-time and one of my favorite players from the 1980s brought back a lot of positive memories and great feelings. I remember seeing footage of Thomas and Magic Johnson talking at the 1987 NBA All-Star Weekend--Erving's last All-Star Weekend as an active player--about one of the times that Erving came to Michigan and appeared at a youth basketball camp. They took turns describing how Erving marched to one end of the court, ran to the free throw line, took off and hung in the air long enough to talk to the campers before he dunked the ball! The sheer joy on their faces as they gave their (perhaps slightly exaggerated) description of Erving made a lasting impression on me. I remember feeling jealous that Erving went to their camp and wishing that he had made an appearance at my basketball camp (one of my counselors wrote at the end of the summer that I was preparing daily to go one on one with Dr. J).

Erving was a tremendous player, a vastly underrated player, but he also has a touch of grace and class that enables him to influence generations of not only basketball players but people in general.

Thomas' respect for Erving shone through during the podcast and it was equally apparent that Erving respects Thomas. This was not some vapid mutual admiration society but rather two men who beat the odds in so many ways talking about what specifically they each did to be successful and how they are paying forward the good fortune that they have experienced.

Erving brought up how Thomas overcame a severely sprained ankle to score an NBA Finals record 25 points in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 103-102 game six loss to the L.A. Lakers in 1988. Erving was modest enough to not mention that in game one of the 1976 ABA Finals he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and 37 points in the second half. Erving asked Thomas what he was thinking as he was scoring those points. I remember that a similar question from ESPN's Dan Patrick years ago elicited passionate tears from Thomas as he talked about how hard he and his teammates had fought to have this opportunity to win a title. Thomas did not cry this time and he provided some interesting insights. Thomas said that players of his generation, like players from Erving's generation, played for the moment and were focused on winning the title right at that time. In contrast, Thomas believes that today's players focus on their legacy or on a business plan to play for 15 years and make X amount of dollars. Erving and Thomas agreed that it is unlikely that a modern player would or could do what Thomas did in that game. Erving said, "I watched what you did in that game and it did not go unnoticed."

Erving and Thomas also talked about their interactions with legendary Hall of Fame basketball coach John McClendon. Thomas correctly noted that the up tempo style often credited to Mike D'Antoni can be traced back to McClendon. Thomas said that when predominantly black teams used that style it was not called "Seven Seconds or Less" but rather "alley ball." Thomas said that when he was young he attended a basketball camp where McClendon spoke and that McClendon opened his remarks by holding up a basketball and saying that this could be their ticket to travel the world and to meet kings and queens. Thomas recalled being mesmerized and inspired. Erving shared some nice memories of working with McClendon on a committee with the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Thomas described his childhood in Chicago, a time marked by nationwide unrest that hit very close to home. Thomas said that after the riots that took place in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, there was a time when it felt like his neighborhood was under military occupation. Thomas said that his father likely suffered from what would now be diagnosed as depression, though nothing was diagnosed or treated at the time. It fell to Thomas' mother to run the household and set a good example for all of her children. Thomas also recalled the positive influence of several coaches, of the Harlem Globetrotters (who did camps in the city) and of Erving, a dignified and respected figure who was universally admired.

Without prompting from Erving (who is typically reluctant to speak about his accomplishments and his place in history), Thomas noted that the mainstream narrative has become that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the NBA. Thomas said, "I don't remember it that way." Thomas said that when he was growing up in the 1970s there was Dr. J, Kareem and then everyone else. Thomas acknowledged that there were other talented players but he insisted that Doc and Kareem set themselves apart not only on the court but also off of the court. Thomas remembered that whenever Doc or Kareem spoke, his parents and siblings told him to listen and to use them as role models.

One of Thomas' current business ventures is champagne distribution and Thomas said that he donates some of the profits to help the retired NBA players. Erving responded that some people talk but their actions don't back up their words and he was happy that Thomas is not just paying empty lip service to the pioneers who built pro basketball.

Early on, when both men talked about the influences in their life they mentioned their mothers. Thomas asked Erving why he has always been so gracious and helpful to so many people, including the generation of players that came into the NBA after Erving. Erving said that his mother taught him to treat everyone the way that you want to be treated--with respect. Erving said that he learned that even if you are poor you can share what you have and that when you share you ultimately find that everything you give is returned to you, while if you don't share that also is returned to you. As Erving's mother told him, "God don't like ugly."

The conversation lasts 42 minutes and I recommend that you subscribe to Erving's podcast (it's free!) so that you can listen to all of the previous episodes as well as keep up as new ones are posted. I am working my way through the archives--usually listening to one or two per day at lunch--and enjoying every minute. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:08 AM

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Friday, October 05, 2018

2018-19 Western Conference Preview

Walt Frazier recently declared that Kevin Durant's Golden State championships should always have an "asterisk" attached because Durant joined the Warriors instead of trying to beat them. Frazier made an excellent point; Durant deserves full credit for how well he has played as a Warrior but the reality is that he joined a team that had already won 73 regular season games and a championship (in different seasons) and such a squad obviously did not need Durant.

I understand that under the current free agency rules Durant had the right to sign with whatever team he wanted to sign with and I understand that he felt like his individual resume/legacy would be bolstered by winning multiple titles as a Warrior--but I miss the days when a star player and his team would embark on a journey toward a title that would take several years and involve overcoming a variety of challenges. I think of Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons, and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Championships forged in the crucible of years of battle just seem more meaningful than championships won by signing up with the best team. Durant and Warriors' fans may feel differently and they are entitled to feel that way--but old school fans are equally entitled to their feelings about the matter.

The rich got even richer this summer, acquiring All-Star DeMarcus Cousins as an inexpensive (by NBA standards) one year rental. Cousins is recovering from an Achilles tear and the Warriors obviously do not have to rush to bring him back, but when Cousins returns to action the Warriors will have a rotation consisting of five All-Stars, with a former All-Star and Finals MVP coming off of the bench. You could take Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry plus any one other All-Star out of the lineup and the Warriors would still be a serious championship contender, if not the outright favorite. This team is simply not going to lose a playoff series unless/until the players get bored, get injured, get old or leave via free agency.

I have always enjoyed watching greatness and I enjoy watching the Warriors' basketball mastery but I would have enjoyed this era more if we were watching Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook versus the Warriors as opposed to the Warriors just dominating. Golden State versus Oklahoma City should have been a rivalry for several years in the Western Conference Finals. Basketball fans have been robbed. If you are too young to remember, find some footage from the Eastern Conference Finals from 1980-82--Julius Erving's 76ers versus Larry Bird's Celtics--to get an idea of what is missing from today's game.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers battled the Warriors in four straight NBA Finals, winning one title in 2016, but only one of those series went to seven games. Watching those series felt more like watching a coronation than watching a championship bout. James' departure from Cleveland to play for a rebuilding L.A. Lakers team means that the Warriors may not even have to deal with the best player in the game en route to their next title, and if they do face him then he will not have the experienced supporting cast that he had in Cleveland.

The Utah Jazz finished fifth in the Western Conference last year but they closed the regular season by winning 29 of their last 35 games and then they performed very well in the playoffs. They don't have a realistic chance to beat the Warriors but they could beat any other Western Conference team in a playoff series.

The Houston Rockets finished with the league's best record last season but this summer they did some subtraction by addition, acquiring the aging and one dimensional Carmelo Anthony after Anthony's less than stellar one year run in Oklahoma City.

Many self-proclaimed experts considered it a foregone conclusion that Paul George would join LeBron James with the Lakers but George did not even meet with the Lakers before re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder. George actually prefers playing with Russell Westbrook to playing with LeBron James! That development has shocked the media into silence; I cannot recall watching, hearing or reading a single report that directly stated that George chose Westbrook over James as a teammate, but there have been plenty of reports that accuse Westbrook of not being a good teammate, or at least suggesting that it would be difficult to play alongside him.

For quite some time, the mainstream media narrative about the Lakers has been out of whack and out of touch with reality. Supposedly, no great players wanted to play alongside Kobe Bryant--never mind the fact that both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard arranged to be traded to the Lakers to play with Bryant. Imagine if a player of Paul George's caliber had been a free agent at that time and had not signed with the Lakers. The mainstream media outlets would have endlessly speculated that George did not want to play with Bryant--but when George spurns James' Lakers, that hardly registers as news.

Another narrative that made no sense was the idea that in his final years Bryant was "holding back" the supposedly talented young nucleus that the Lakers had put together. After Bryant retired, we all saw the full capabilities of that nucleus, and those players are either gone or will be filling secondary roles to James. What the Lakers have done after years of wandering in the wilderness is acquire a great player who they hope can fill Bryant's shoes not just in terms of individual production but in terms of delivering championships.

Year two of Westbrook playing with George should be very good for the Thunder, particularly with Anthony out of the picture. Westbrook is going to miss the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery but assuming that there are no lingering effects from that procedure the Thunder should again be a top four team in the Western Conference.

This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) Golden State Warriors: What is left to say about this team? The Warriors are now competing against history, not against their contemporaries: how many titles will this team capture and how should the Warriors be ranked among the greatest teams of previous eras? Those questions are more intriguing--and relevant--than trying to figure out who the Warriors will beat in the Western Conference Finals and how many games that series will last.

Durant is a great player and he is a better player than Curry; the fact that the Warriors could win a title without Durant does not mean that Curry is better; the Warriors could also win a title without Curry. Durant has been the best player in the past two NBA Finals, outdueling James and outperforming Curry. The safety net of talent that exists around Durant makes it a little difficult to compare him to players from other eras who did not enjoy such a luxury but there is no doubting Durant's greatness.

There is speculation that Durant might leave the Warriors at some point to "validate" his greatness by winning a championship with a lesser team. Only Durant knows if he thinks in such terms but I would say that ship has already sailed. If Durant wanted to beat the Warriors, then he should have stayed with the Thunder. Durant indicated that obtaining the easiest path to the championship was his top priority, so it would be hypocritical and vain for him to go to another team now. He might as well ride out this wave and stack up as many championships as he can. The main person who doubted that Durant could lead a non-super team to a title was Durant; going to another team would just prove that Durant is so sensitive to public opinion that he would sacrifice his own beliefs to try to prove people wrong. If Durant believes in his heart that abandoning the Thunder was the right thing to do, then there is no reason to seek greener pastures now.

2) Utah Jazz: The Houston Rockets may win more regular season games but the Jazz--when healthy--are better constructed to make a deep playoff run. The Jazz beat the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs and then took home court advantage away from the Rockets before Houston rallied to win three straight. Utah's nucleus is young and improving, led by rising star Donovan Mitchell and 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Utah ranked first in points allowed and sixth in defensive field goal percentage. The Jazz may have scoring droughts from time to time, but their opponents will not score very much during those droughts.

3) Houston Rockets: Rockets fans may believe that the team was one Chris Paul injury away from reaching the NBA Finals but Daryl Morey clearly felt that the roster needed some tinkering. He replaced defensive-minded forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute with Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has a career-long pattern of rarely advancing very far in the playoffs; he is a shoot-first (and second and third) player whose efficiency is declining and whose willingness/ability to contribute in other areas decreases each year. Even if they had stood pat, the Rockets would probably not have won 65 games again; that was an aberration and they are due to regress to the mean. Adding Anthony, though, will probably subtract about 10 wins, while also making this team a less potent playoff force.

James Harden and Chris Paul will once again put up gaudy regular season numbers in Mike D'Antoni's system. The Rockets will win around 55 games, and then they will lose a hard fought second round series. Let's take any Chris Paul excuses off of the table right now. The Rockets re-signed him to a four year deal averaging $40 million per season knowing full well that he is (1) undersized, (2) aging, (3) injury-prone and (4) tends to wear down in the playoffs even if he is healthy. If any combination of those four factors contributes to Houston's playoff demise, that is not bad fortune but rather a predictable outcome, as is Harden having some terrible playoff games mixed in with his boxscore stuffing games.

4) Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder will probably be better this season than last season, as Westbrook and George will be even more in tune and the overall chemistry sans Anthony will be much better. However, even if the Thunder win 52 or 53 games they still will probably not pass the three teams listed above: I expect the Warriors to win around 60 games, the Jazz around 57 and the Rockets around 55. Coming off of knee surgery, Westbrook may get off to a slow start by his standards and he probably will not average a triple double; look for his rebounding to drop perhaps to the 7-9 rpg range, while his other numbers stay about the same. The Thunder do not have quite the talent or depth of the teams ranked ahead of them but if everything comes together just right it is not out of the question that the Thunder could make it to the Western Conference Finals (assuming, of course, that they avoid playing the Warriors in the first two rounds of the playoffs).

5) L.A. Lakers: The Lakers won 35 games without LeBron James last season and an MVP caliber player should be worth at least 10-15 wins. After failing to acquire Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers have assembled an eclectic supporting cast around James. This team is not a championship contender, but any squad with James and at least a few competent players is going to make the playoffs and possibly put a scare into a first round opponent. At some point, James is going to age and decline like every great player before him but there are no signs that this is going to happen in 2018-19.

6) Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets missed the playoffs by one game, losing to Minnesota in overtime in a de facto one game playoff on the last day of the season. The Nuggets will not cut things so close this time around. Nikola Jokic (18.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 6.1 apg in 2017-18) has superstar potential and just needs to keep developing his already impressive skills. Jokic joined Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett and Russell Westbrook in the select group of NBA players who have averaged at least 18 ppg-10 rpg-6 apg in a season. It should be noted that George McGinnis also accomplished this in the ABA in 1974-75 when he shared regular season MVP honors with Julius Erving. Denver has a solid nucleus of players around Jokic--including four-time All-Star Paul Millsap--and a good coach in Mike Malone.

7) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland surpassed several more heralded teams to finish third in the tightly-contested Western Conference last season but the shine of that great season was quickly tarnished after New Orleans swept Portland in the first round of the playoffs. One should not make too much out of a four game sample size compared to an 82 game sample size but it is reasonable to wonder if maybe the Trail Blazers were not quite as good as their seeding suggested, a notion that gains further credence when considering that Portland only finished one game ahead of the sixth seeded Pelicans. I am not necessarily suggesting that Portland's record will decline significantly, just that Portland will probably win 45-46 games and slip a few spots in the standings.  

8) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs are in uncharted territory. For two decades, the torch has been passed smoothly--from David Robinson to Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard--but now the franchise has experienced unprecedented upheaval and turmoil. The relationship between Leonard and the organization completely collapsed, resulting in Leonard being shipped to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is a very good player but he is not as good as peak Leonard and DeRozan's playoff resume lacks Leonard's championship pedigree and Finals MVP award. It is difficult to believe that a Gregg Popovich-coached team featuring DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge would miss the playoffs, but it is also difficult to see this team as an elite squad. The Spurs are not going to win 50 games or contend for a title but they will keep alive their incredible streak of playoff appearances dating back to Duncan's rookie season in 1997-98.

The rest of the Western Conference is a mixed bag, with some teams that could be dark horse playoff threats and some teams that are just awful.

As noted above, I expect the Lakers and Nuggets to emerge as playoff teams this season, which means that two of last year's playoff teams would miss the cut.

The New Orleans Pelicans upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round last year but lost DeMarcus Cousins (who did not play in the postseason due to injury) and Rajon Rondo, who played a key role in the team's late season surge and postseason run. The Pelicans finished just two games ahead of eighth seeded Minnesota last season and I think that the Pelicans will miss the playoffs by a small margin this time around.

The unresolved Jimmy Butler saga could tilt the balance of power in many ways. After the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired him last year, I wrote in my Western Conference Preview that Butler "should be worth at least 8-10 wins in the standings." The Timberwolves jumped from 31 wins to 47 wins  and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Butler has made it clear that he does not intend to play for Minnesota but the Timberwolves have yet to trade him. It will be difficult for the Timberwolves to get fair market value for him under these circumstances, so I feel confident predicting that this team will not make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. However, if Minnesota manages to get some meaningful assets in return for Butler then the Timberwolves could possibly battle for the eighth seed--particularly if the team finally takes to heart Coach Tom Thibodeau's emphasis on defense, which has largely fallen on deaf ears during his tenure, even last season when the team improved in the standings.

The team that acquires Butler should move up in the standings.

The Dallas Mavericks did a lot of tanking to have the opportunity to draft Luka Doncic. Doncic has looked good during the preseason and the Mavericks--with Rick Carlisle's excellent coaching--are not a bad sleeper pick for the eighth seed but I predict that they will fall short this season.

All of the main cogs of "Lob City"--Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan--are gone now and so are the chances of the L.A. Clippers making the playoffs in 2019.

The Memphis Grizzlies got rid of Coach Lionel Hollins after Hollins led the team to the 2013 Western Conference Finals. Hollins disagreed with management's basketball philosophy; Hollins is an old school basketball lifer who was the point guard and third leading scorer on Portland's 1977 NBA championship team, while the front office is populated with "stat gurus" who value "advanced basketball statistics" over any other decision-making tool. Five years later, it is not too soon to conclude that it would be an understatement to say that Memphis management's overall philosophy and specific decisions have not turned out well: Hollins' 2013 squad set a franchise record with 56 wins, while last year's team went 22-60. After Hollins' departure, Memphis lost in the first round three times and the second round once before cratering in 2017-18. Somewhere, Hollins must be laughing about the time that a certain Memphis front office executive came onto the practice court to give instructions to a player, an encroachment to which Hollins responded by rather emphatically stating that the executive should leave the court immediately. Memphis' emphasis on analytics was described at the time as "forward-thinking," which is comical since it resulted in a decisively backward movement in the standings. The Grizzlies and their "forward thinking" brain trust will again be watching the playoffs, not participating in them.

Phoenix and Sacramento will once again assume their now-customary positions at or near the bottom of the standings.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2018 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: 7/8
2016: 6/8
2015: 7/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2018 Total: 83/104 (.798)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:40 AM

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2018-19 Eastern Conference Preview

The balance of power in the Eastern Conference shifted seismically when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the L.A. Lakers. James' run of eight straight NBA Finals appearances (Miami 2011-2014; Cleveland 2015-18) will almost certainly end as a result of that move. Regardless of the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during this era, James' accomplishment is still noteworthy. The only other player in NBA history to lead his team to at least eight straight NBA Finals is Bill Russell, whose Celtics reached the NBA Finals from 1957-66.

Michael Jordan is often depicted as the ultimate basketball champion but his six titles are barely half of the total that Russell accumulated: 11 championships (and 12 Finals appearances) in 13 seasons. The Celtics' roster completely changed around Russell during that era, with Tommy Heinsohn being the only other Celtic player who joined Russell on each of those 10 NBA Finalists from 1957-66.

As a winner/champion, James (whose teams have gone 3-5 in the NBA Finals) is not even in the same conversation with Jordan, let alone Russell. James was justly criticized for taking the easy way out in 2010 when he left a Cleveland team that had just won 61 regular season games (after winning 66 games the year before) to create a super-team in Miami. This time, James is leaving a perennial contender to seek his fortune with a traditional NBA power that has been awful since the decline and retirement of Kobe Bryant. James is not taking the easy way from a basketball standpoint but it also is not clear that winning a championship is his top priority; he may very well have gone Hollywood both literally and figuratively.

The Boston Celtics are well-positioned to be contenders for the next several years. They are essentially adding two All-Stars to a rotation that advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last season; due to injuries, neither Kyrie Irving nor Gordon Hayward played a single minute in the 2018 postseason but both are expected to be fully healthy for the start of the 2018-19 campaign.

The Toronto Raptors added MVP-level player Kawhi Leonard to a roster that finished with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference last season but they gave up perennial All-Star DeMar Derozan to get Leonard. The Raptors also fired 2018 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. The potential upside for the Raptors is very high but those big moves could also backfire.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Boston Celtics: Prior to last season, I wrote, "I think that the Celtics are a year away from winning the East. Their nucleus needs some time to grow together and, of course, if James departs Cleveland next summer then the conference will almost certainly be there for Boston to take starting in 2018-19." James left, Boston's young nucleus blended nicely last season and this season the team is hoping/expecting to see the fully healthy return to action of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, so there is every reason to consider the Celtics the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2019 NBA Finals. The two main potential obstacles for Boston are (1) injuries to key players (always a concern regarding Irving) and (2) Kawhi Leonard's reemergence as an MVP-caliber two-way player. If Leonard regains his old form, then the Toronto Raptors will have a great opportunity to challenge the Celtics. The rest of the Eastern teams lack the talent, depth and/or coaching to beat the Celtics in a seven game series.

2) Toronto Raptors: Other than James going to Los Angeles, the biggest offseason story in the NBA was the complete breakdown of the relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has been considered the model franchise in the league--if not all of professional sports--for the better part of the past 20 years. We may never find out what happened behind the scenes but we know the end result: Leonard is now a Raptor and DeMar DeRozan is now a Spur. How healthy and motivated is Leonard? How committed is Leonard to staying in Toronto as opposed to angling to land somewhere that he may consider to be more desirable? No one knows the answers to those questions except for Leonard, and he may not even know until he plays out this season.

The Raptors finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season but suffered a humiliating 4-0 sweep at the hands of Cleveland in the second round. That loss looks even worse when considered in the context of Cleveland sleepwalking through the regular season and then needing seven games to put away the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Dwane Casey won the Coach of the Year award and still got fired. The Raptors promoted assistant Nick Nurse--who has no NBA head coaching experience--and that is an odd-looking move; if you are going to fire the Coach of the Year because of being swept in the playoffs, one might assume that you would go in a completely different direction as opposed to turning to a less-experienced person who presumably shares Casey's basic coaching philosophies. Leonard's physical health and state of mind, plus Nurse's inexperience, are the biggest questions about the Raptors. The ceiling for this team is to win the East and possibly even test the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals (the last time we saw a fully healthy Leonard, he was dominating the Warriors in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals); however, if Leonard struggles and Nurse is not who team President Masai Ujiri thinks he is, then the Raptors could fall from contender status to first round fodder.

3) Indiana Pacers: The Pacers were one of the most surprising stories of last season. The Pacers did not look like a playoff team on paper after dealing franchise player Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis but Oladipo won the 2018 Most Improved Player Award while averaging a career-high 23.1 ppg and leading the Pacers to a 48-34 record.

The Pacers pushed the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs and even though the Pacers' rise was unexpected it does not appear to be a fluke. I expect the Pacers to crack the 50 win barrier this season.

4) Philadelphia 76ers: The 76ers finished third in the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 record and then beat Miami 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before losing 4-1 to Boston in the second round. The 76ers started the season 36-30 before finishing with a 16 game winning streak--but that streak was deceptive because at least six of those victories came against teams that were actively tanking. In the playoffs, Boston exposed Philadelphia's weaknesses and I expect the 76ers to regress to the mean, finishing with between 48-50 wins to place them just behind the Pacers. The injury-prone Joel Embiid operated under playing time restrictions last season, limiting him to 30.3 mpg in 63 games. I am skeptical that he will ever be able to handle the workload that is customary for an All-Star caliber player and those limitations are part of the reason that I do not believe that the 76ers will do any better this season than they did last season.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo made the All-NBA Second Team for the second year in a row after setting career-highs in scoring (26.9 ppg), rebounding (10.0 rpg) and field goal percentage (.529) while also averaging 4.8 apg. He was exceptional in the playoffs (25.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 6.3 apg, .570 FG%) as the Bucks extended the Celtics to seven games before falling 112-96 in the clinching contest. The organization has experienced a lot of instability and has made some puzzling personnel decisions but Antetokounmpo's all-around greatness masks many of the team's flaws and issues. In order to become a top four team in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks must improve their rebounding (they ranked 30th out of 30 teams in the league in that department) and their defense (the Bucks ranked 20th in defensive field goal percentage). Defense and rebounding are like tackling and blocking in football: they may not seem glamorous or grab headlines but it is very difficult to be a great team without at least being competent in those areas.

6) Washington Wizards: In the past five seasons, the Wizards have won between 41 and 49 games, advancing to the second round three times and missing the playoffs only once. All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal form one of the league's best backcourts and the rest of the rotation is solid but for whatever reason this team has not been able to take the next step in terms of winning 50-plus games and contending for conference supremacy.

The Wizards acquired Dwight Howard to anchor the frontcourt. Howard's game and reputation have declined in recent years but he is still a productive player (16.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg, .555 FG% in 81 games for Charlotte last season).

The upside for this team is very high: if Wall stays healthy, if Howard remains productive and if the overall chemistry works then the Wizards could be a 55 win team and a serious postseason threat. On the other hand, it seems more likely that injuries and/or chemistry issues will relegate this team to roughly 45 wins and a first round exit.

7) Detroit Pistons: The Pistons have made the playoffs just once in the past nine seasons but that should change with the hiring of 2018 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey plus a full season of Blake Griffin in the fold. The Pistons won four in a row after Griffin first appeared in the lineup but then reverted to their losing ways down the stretch. Supposedly the pairing of Griffin with Andre Drummond cannot work in the "modern," analytics-driven "pace and space" NBA. No one is suggesting that this team is a serious contender but Griffin and DeAndre Jordan coexisted well with the L.A. Clippers and Coach Casey will find a way for his two big men to be effective. Drummond averaged 15.0 ppg and captured his second rebounding title in three years; his 16.0 rpg mark is the NBA's best rebounding average since Dennis Rodman's 16.1 rpg in 1996-97.

The health of point guard Reggie Jackson is critical; the Pistons looked like a playoff team early in the season when Jackson was rolling and posted a 27-18 record with him in the lineup but Detroit limped to a 12-25 record in the games that Jackson missed.

8) Miami Heat: The Heat went 11-30 in the first half of the 2016-17 season before going 30-11 in the second half. Last season, the Heat followed a less volatile path to a 44-38 record, going 24-17 in the first half of the season and then 20-21 down the stretch. It is becoming evident that both 41 game snapshots of the Heat from two years ago were aberrations. This is not an awful team, nor is it a contending team--but the Heat do have the highest payroll in the NBA in 2018-19, so it does not seem that Pat Riley has spent wisely. Goran Dragic is a solid player but he is not elite and he does not figure to improve as he moves deeper into his 30s. Hassan Whiteside is the team's most talented and physically gifted player but he took a step back last season, partially due to injuries and partially due to mindset. If Whiteside can head back in the direction of becoming an elite big man then maybe the Heat can move past the eighth seed but whether or not that happens this team looks like first round fodder for one of the conference's top dogs.

As for the rest of the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be better than many people expect; unlike the last time that LeBron James left, it does not appear that the Cavaliers are going into tank mode, and a team that has Kevin Love as its centerpiece surrounded by a decent supporting cast should be able to muster up 35-40 wins. I even give Cleveland an outside chance to grab the eighth seed if everything breaks right and if one of the teams listed above suffers chemistry issues and/or injuries.

The Brooklyn Nets showed signs of improvement but not enough signs to jump to playoff contention.

The Charlotte Hornets seem to have peaked after making the playoffs in two of the first three years that Steve Clifford coached the team. After missing the playoffs two seasons in a row the franchise hired James Borrego to replace Clifford. The much-maligned Dwight Howard played well for the Hornets last season and they will miss his presence in the paint.

The Chicago Bulls hope that the addition of Jabari Parker will be enough to lift the team into playoff contention but that is asking a lot of an injury prone player who is allergic to defense and is not as great of an offensive player as he seems to think that he is.

Kristaps Porzingis is still recovering from his ACL tear and the New York Knicks did not add any talent to the roster that went 29-53 last season, so the team will probably finish with a similar record this season.

The Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic both figure to be terrible again.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2017-18 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2017: 5/8
2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2018 Total: 77/104 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Wayback Machine, Part X: The 1984 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

The front cover photo of the 1984 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball featured Moses Malone shooting a left handed jump hook at close range over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while the back cover photo depicted Julius Erving soaring above Louis Orr. It was fitting that the two Philadelphia stars received that recognition, because they had dominated the league the season before, leading the 76ers to a 65-17 regular season mark and a magnificent, record-setting 12-1 playoff run capped off by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers. Erving had won the 1981 regular season MVP, while Malone captured the 1982 and 1983 regular season MVPs in addition to winning the 1983 Finals MVP.

The 1984 CHPB contained 335 pages, 15 fewer than the previous edition. It included 23 team profiles, lists of the 1984 NBA statistical leaders, the complete 1983-84 schedule, a list of all 226 selections in the 1984 NBA Draft and a "TV/Radio roundup." The 1984 CHPB had four feature stories: Stan Hochman wrote "Wholly Moses! The Indestructible Sixer," Bob Ryan contributed "The All-Bizarre All-Star Teams," Peter Alfano heralded "The Dawning of the Age of Sampson" and Frank Brady profiled Marty Blake in "Superscout: The Marty Blake Report."

Steve Hershey and Fran Blinebury co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that the Philadelphia 76ers would defeat the Lakers in the NBA Finals to become the first repeat NBA champions since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in 1969. The Lakers posted the best record in the Western Conference (54-28) and cruised to the NBA Finals by going 7-1 in their first two playoff series before losing to the Boston Celtics in seven games. The 76ers mounted a disappointing title defense, finishing the regular season 52-30 (second best record in the Eastern Conference but 10 games behind the Celtics) before being stunned in the first round by the New Jersey Nets.

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1984 CHPB:

1) Hochman's article chronicled the improbable rise of Moses Malone from high school phenom in Petersburg, Virginia to NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP and three-time NBA regular season MVP. Malone was never a flashy player but he was brutally and relentlessly effective. As Erving put it, "We have the world championship because after six years of knocking on the door, even though we felt good in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls, we went out and got, for cold cash, a hard hat." Prior to the 1982-83 season, the 76ers signed Malone to a then record-setting six year, $13.2 million deal, and they shipped former ABA All-Star Caldwell Jones plus a first round draft pick to Malone's former team, the Houston Rockets (per the NBA's limited free agency rules at that time, which stipulated that a player's team owned a "right of first refusal" but could waive that right in return for compensation).

As if often the case when two superstars join forces, some wondered if Malone could co-exist with the iconic Erving--but Malone never had any doubts: "It's Doc's show and I just want to watch the show," Malone said not long after arriving in Philadelphia. In the ABA, Doc was always a great show. Now I've got a chance to play with Doc and I think it's gonna be a better show." In that first season, Malone helped lift the 76ers from 20th in the league in rebounding to first as the 76ers raced to a 50-7 start, the best such run in the history of the league. Such dominance makes one wonder how many titles Erving might have won had he been paired with one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time while he was in his prime, the way that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were as they won multiple NBA titles.

2) Bob Ryan noted that no one could argue about the five players selected to the 1983 All-NBA First Team--Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Sidney Moncrief--and commented, "But there's more to the NBA than excellence. There is, for example, baffling inconsistency, greed, stupidity, selfishness and any number of anti-social behavioral patterns. There is also valor, determination, aggressiveness, and self-sacrifice." Ryan then selected his version of "The All-Bizarre All-Stars," 13 teams consisting of five players each.

I disagree with several of Ryan' choices; you can judge for yourself after looking at a couple of the teams he put together: "All Slama-Jama" (F Dominique Wilkins, F Edgar Jones, C Tree Rollins, G Darrell Griffith, G Sidney Moncrief); "All-ICBM" (F Larry Bird, F Eugene Short, C Dan Issel, G Fred Brown, G Brian Winters, Swingman Junior Bridgeman). Ryan realized that not putting Erving on the team of best slam dunkers would look odd but Ryan's explanation is hardly persuasive: "All I can say is Dominique had to be on this team, and that if you have never seen Edgar's act, hush your mouth." During the 1982-83 season, Erving authored his famous "rock the cradle" dunk over Michael Cooper, one of the greatest dunks of all-time. At age 33, Erving was still a phenomenal dunker; keep in mind that in the season after Ryan wrote those words Erving finished second in the NBA's inaugural All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk Contest (after winning the ABA Slam Dunk Contest in 1976), while in 1983 Wilkins had just completed his rookie season and Jones was a third year journeyman who had already played for three different NBA teams. No, Erving had to be on the team and he probably should have been joined by Larry Nance, an emerging young talent who beat Erving in the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest.

Regarding Ryan's team of sharpshooters, he wrote, "Distance, and distance alone, counts. When these guys approach the three point arc, an alarm buzzer should sound on the opposing team's bench." This was a much different era than the current one; in the early 1980s, no NBA player shot the three pointer with great regularity and few players connected at what would now be considered a decent percentage. Only four NBA players made at least 25 three pointers during the entire 1982-83 season and Mike Dunleavy led the league in three point field goal percentage at .345 after hitting 67 of his 194 attempts. Still, it is more than a bit of a stretch (no pun intended) to put Issel and Bridgeman on a list where "distance, and distance alone, counts." There is no doubt that Issel and Bridgeman were deadly midrange shooters but Issel shot 4-19 from three point range during the 1982-83 season and Bridgeman shot 1-13 from beyond the arc that season. The only alarm buzzers sounding when those guys took three pointers were on the benches of their own teams. Issel shot 29-142 (.204) from three point range during his ABA/NBA career and, surprisingly, he shot even worse during his free-wheeling ABA days (10-67, .149) than he did during his NBA career. Bridgeman finished his NBA career as a .244 three point shooter (40-164). As for Eugene Short, he played one NBA season prior to the league adopting the three point shot. Maybe Ryan meant Eugene's brother Purvis? Purvis was a big-time scorer for a few years in the 1980s but he shot just 4-15 on three pointers in 1982-83 and he finished his career as a .282 three point shooter (125-443).

I have a lot of respect for Ryan--there is a Ryan section in my extensive basketball library--and he is usually a perceptive commentator (albeit one with a Boston Celtics bias at times), so perhaps someone ghost-wrote this piece for him, because the choices and explanations are, to borrow a word, bizarre.

3) It is easy to forget just how big of a star--literally and figuratively--the 7-4 Ralph Sampson was in the early 1980s. As Alfano put it, "Now, like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, to a lesser extent, Bill Walton, Sampson is expected to usher in an era of his very own--'The Age of Sampson.'" Sampson had an exceptional collegiate career at Virginia, though some critics faulted Sampson for not winning a national title. He earned the 1984 NBA Rookie of the Year award after averaging 21.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg (fifth in the NBA) and 2.4 bpg (third in the NBA) while helping the Houston Rockets improve from 14 wins to 29 wins. In 1986--after the addition of Hakeem Olajuwon--the Rockets made it to the NBA Finals before falling to the Celtics in six games. Injuries limited Sampson's production during the rest of his career, but he still was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

4) Marty Blake was officially the NBA's Director of Scouting but everyone called him Superscout. As Frank Brady noted, anyone can identify the few elite players but it takes real skill to know "the difference between good players--of whom there are many--and very good players--of whom there are never enough." Blake provided each of the 23 NBA teams with detailed scouting reports regarding college basketball players. "Marty Blake is the guru of pro basketball," declared 76ers' owner Harold Katz.

Blake started his NBA career with the Hawks in 1954 and he spent 17 years with the franchise in three cities (Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atlanta). He began to be recognized as Superscout in the early 1960s, when he found future Hall of Famer Zelmo Beaty at Prairie View. Blake worked briefly for the ABA's Pittsburgh Condors before founding his independent scouting service. For a few years, he worked for individual teams but after the 1976 ABA-NBA merger he was hired by the league office. The 76ers' 1983 championship team featured a couple of second round draft picks recommended by Blake: future Hall of Famer Maurice Cheeks and key reserve Clint Richardson.

Blake has a quick wit and Brady mentioned some of Blake's quips but a couple of my favorites come from Alexander Woolf's March 14, 2005 Sports Illustrated profile of Blake: "Best newspaper lede I ever read was in a music review: 'The St. Louis Symphony played Beethoven last night, and Beethoven lost.'" and "It's hard to tell a coach with a two-year contract that some guy's three years away."

5) Dominique Wilkins' player profiles stated, "Can do it all, but often lets his man do it all, too...Prematurely called the next Dr. J, but he does have potential to be one of the league's elite showmen."

6) Larry Bird's profile included high praise: "How do you improve a Picasso?...May be one of the best all-around players ever...Incredibly, he somehow improved again in almost every statistical category."

7) Kevin McHale is described as "Most publicized sub since the nuclear-powered Triton went around the world without surfacing...As free agent, he surfaced last summer with a $4 million, four year contract, reportedly making him the fourth highest paid player in the NBA."

8) M.L. Carr's profile is harsh: "Let's put his Carr up on blocks...The only part that still runs well is between the lips...Used to be an aggressive defender, but probably caught cold in the draft created by guards rushing past him last year."

9) Boston traded Darren Tillis to Cleveland and Tillis' CHPB profile opined, "Could Red Auerbach be wrong?...Sure, but not in this deal...A first-round draft choice of the Celtics, this non-shooting, non-rebounding near 7-footer has all the makings of the next Eric Fernsten...Was told he didn't have to score, so he didn't...Is lifting weights, but not big ones."

10) Sidney Moncrief may not be a name player to members of the younger generation but he was at his peak during the early to mid-1980s. His CHPB profile stated, "Worked his way to the top...No doubters now...Generally acknowledged to be one of the game's best all-around players...He can sky...Could score more if he wasn't so unselfish."

11) The 76ers' scouting report noted the team's offensive prowess--four starters plus Sixth Man of the Year Bobby Jones shot at least .500 from the field as the team scored 112.1 ppg--and added, "Finally, after capturing that elusive championship, the 76ers are getting credit for playing magnificent defense...When you're talking defense, nobody does it better than the 76ers."

12) Julius Erving's profile began, "On top, where he belongs...A champion, at last." Of course, it must be mentioned that Erving won two championships and two Finals MVPs in the ABA prior to winning the 1983 NBA title. The profile continued, "A truly genuine sports hero...The fans' favorite throughout the league...In storybook fashion, he took over in the closing minutes of the final game, scoring seven straight points to assure the 76ers of a 4-0 sweep of Los Angeles." Erving's best game of the season came on December 11 versus Detroit, when he posted 44 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and a career-high eight blocked shots. The CHPB included Erving's ABA statistics and thus listed Erving with 24,393 career points (25.6 ppg average), 8945 rebounds, 4195 assists, a .509 career field goal percentage and a .778 career free throw percentage.

13) Andrew Toney's profile declared, "Has arrived...Status secured...An All-Star now...All it took was full time duty...One of the best at getting a shot on his own late in the game...Wants to take the last shot...Played best against the best...Had career-high 46 points vs. Lakers and set club record with 25 points in one quarter against Boston...Very difficult to defend--Boston has no one who can--because he has no favorite spot and unlimited range."

14) Moses Malone is described as "'Octobull'--a cross between an octopus and a bull...Simply wears out defenders, then dominates them in fourth quarter...The most dominating player since Wilt Chamberlain."

15) Maurice Cheeks, who just became the third Hall of Fame player from that squad, was a young star on the rise: "Stock is soaring...Played in first of what should be many All-Star Games...Named to All-Defensive Team...Starts a lot of breakaways with steals...None better in the East at taking the ball the length of the court...Has averaged more points in playoffs than during regular season every year."

16) Hall of Fame player Billy Cunningham is an underrated coach. As the CHPB noted, at that point he owned the highest regular season winning percentage (.707) of any of the league's 10 winningest coaches. Cunningham also ranked first in career playoff winning percentage (.653) and he reached the 300 win plateau faster than anyone else. Cunnigham is currently second in career regular season winning percentage (.698) behind Phil Jackson (.704); Steve Kerr's career regular season winning percentage is .808 but he has only coached 328 regular season games and one must coach 400 regular season games to qualify for the career winning percentage leaderboard. Cunningham now ranks sixth in career playoff winning percentage (.629; minimum 25 playoff games coached)

17) Kobe Bryant's father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played for the Rockets. The CHPB summarized the elder Bryant's game simply: "If he stays within limits, he can contribute in a reserve role...Rarely stays within limits."

18) Eddie Johnson is now a fixture on Sirius XM NBA Radio but in 1983 he was a third year forward for the Kansas City Kings. His scoring average jumped from 9.3 ppg as a rookie to 19.8 ppg in his second year and the 6-7 small forward led the team in rebounding as well (though that also said something about the quality of the team's big men). The CHPB saw a bright future for Johnson: "Everything you would want in a young player...Enthusiastic...Coachable...Dives for balls the way a street mutt would jump on a piece of filet mignon...Attended Illinois, where he set career records for scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage."

18) Wilt Chamberlain once lamented "Nobody loves Goliath," and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could certainly relate to that sentiment. The CHPB stated, "Any time the Lakers don't win the whole enchilada, the big fella can expect to hear plenty of criticism...Has been the giant redwood everyone has loved to cut down since his days at Power Memorial High and UCLA." The CHPB asserted, "Definitely near the end of a long and glorious career." Who could have imagined at that time that Abdul-Jabbar would play until 1989, winning three more titles plus the 1985 NBA Finals MVP?

19) Magic Johnson did not win a regular season MVP award until 1987, by which time he had already captured four championships (1980, 82, 85, 87) and three NBA Finals MVPs (1980, 82, 87). The CHPB fully recognized his greatness, though: "Has revolutionized the guard position...Arguably the finest player in the game today...Can pick you apart with his pinpoint passes, sink you by scoring or rip you apart by rebounding...The most complete player since Oscar Robertson...San Antonio coach Morris McHone says: 'He can do whatever he wants on the court, he's so good. He could lead the league in scoring or rebounding or assists."

20) The soft-spoken Jamaal Wilkes was overshadowed by Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson but Wilkes was a vital contributor to the Lakers' success: "Baryshnikov of basketball...Everything about him is smooth as silk, hence the nickname...Can cut your heart out with that long slingshot jumper that starts out behind his right ear...Probably the best in the game today at finishing off the fast break...Has shot better than 50 percent from the field for five straight seasons."

Wayback Machine, Part I looked at the 1975 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part II looked at the 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part III looked at the 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part IV looked at the 1978 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part V looked at the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VI looked at the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VII looked at the 1981 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VIII looked at the 1982 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball
 
Wayback Machine, Part IX looked at the 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2018-19 Is Available Now

One of the first welcome signs that the NBA season will begin soon is the appearance of Lindy's Pro Basketball at your favorite bookstore or newsstand. The 2018-19 edition includes eight feature stories and 30 team previews. The feature stories are "Scopin' the NBA" (Mike Ashley looks at some of the major off-season stories, not surprisingly headlined by LeBron James' move from the Cavaliers to the Lakers), "Generation Next" (Lindy's editor Roland Lazenby shares insights gathered from top talent evaluators regarding young stars Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid), "Durant and the Drama Factory" (Michael Bradley examines how the NBA has become like AAU basketball with players "jumping ship and changing teams, almost on a whim"), "The Hoosier " (Mark Murphy profiles Brad Stevens and his Indiana roots), "NBA Report Card" (Lazenby rates each team's off-season moves), "A Look Ahead" (Jeremy Treatman scouts the 2019 NBA Draft), "NBA Fantasy Guide" (Ashley provides advice for fantasy basketball enthusiasts) and "A Look Back" (Lazenby describes the final championship of the Bill Russell's magnificent Boston Celtics career).

I wrote the team previews and sidebars for the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder. My sidebars discuss Mark Cuban and Russell Westbrook respectively.

It is always a source of pride to write for Lindy's and then to see the finished product just a couple months later. The death of print media has been proclaimed for quite some time but Lindy's is alive and well. This is the 11th edition for which I contributed at least one article or team preview and I hope to be on the roster next year as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:15 PM

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Saturday, September 08, 2018

Thoughts and Observations About the 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony

In my article Maurice Cheeks, Charlie Scott and Rod Thorn Are Among the Basketball Hall of Fame's Newest Members, I focused on three of the 13 members of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2018 class. Last night, those men and their classmates were officially enshrined.

Grant Hill was enshrined first. He and 2018 Hall of Fame classmate Jason Kidd will forever be linked not only as co-Rookies of the Year in 1995 but also as unselfish, all-around players who focused first and foremost on team success. Hill alluded to his tendency to be verbose and joked that his wife had urged him to remember the "Five Bs: Be brief, brother, be brief." Turning serious, Hill said that he "fell in love with the game of basketball" by watching Patrick Ewing dominate in both college and the NBA. Hill called Ewing his "basketball hero." Ewing and Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski were Hill's two presenters. Hill thanked Coach Krzyzewski for providing the "blueprint" for success. Next, Hill mentioned Isiah Thomas. Hill seemed uncertain whether or not Thomas was in attendance (perhaps that is why he did not choose Thomas as a presenter as well) but as soon as Hill realized that Thomas was in the building he called him up to the stage and embraced Thomas, who he called a "hero, a friend and an advocate for me." Hill thanked Alonzo Mourning for providing the inspiration for how to come back from health problems/injuries. Hill became emotional when he thanked his parents for how they raised him and when he acknowledged his two daughters and his wife. Hill asked his wife if his speech had been short enough and he promised that the other enshrinees' speeches would be shorter.

Rod Thorn spoke next. He was presented by Jerry West. Thorn thanked the Hall of Fame and Jerry Colangelo in particular. Thorn singled out three Hall of Famers who had a special impact on him:  Bob ("Slick") Leonard, Richie Guerin and Lenny Wilkens.

Younger fans may not remember or know that Thorn was a collegiate star at West Virginia who was selected by the Baltimore Bullets with the second overall pick in the 1963 NBA Draft. Thorn played eight seasons in the NBA before becoming a coach, general manager and league executive. After injuries forced him to retire from playing, Thorn considered going to law school before Kevin Loughery offered him a job as an assistant coach with the New York Nets in the ABA. Thorn recalled, "I knew in my heart I wasn't ready to let the game go."

Thorn said that since his career started as a player he wanted to mention three players "who all had a profound impact on my life": Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and Jason Kidd. Thorn said of Erving, "In 1974, my first season with the Nets, we won the league championship, sparked by the incomparable Julius Erving, who led the team in nearly every statistical category. Night after night, he would perform such incredible athletic feats that would have Kevin and I looking at each other and exclaiming, 'I cannot believe he just did that.' As great as Doc was as a player, he was equally good as a teammate. Thank you Doc for proving that superheroes can be humans, too."

These comments reinforce what Thorn told me over a decade ago about Erving: "I think that he was the best teammate of all the players I've been involved with in 40-plus years of NBA basketball. He was our leading scorer, our leading rebounder, our leading shot blocker, our leading assist guy--you name it, he led our team in it, plus he was the leader of our team. He guarded the best forward every night, whether it was a small forward or a big forward. He took most of the big shots. Not only was he a great player, but more importantly he was a great teammate. He had great lateral quickness and he was a tremendous jumper. He was a tough guy--that is one thing that is not talked about that much when you talk about Julius, because of his great athleticism, but he was a tough guy. I mean he would physically get after guys and play hard. He took a challenge. He played 43-44 minutes a game for us and guarded the best guy on the other team every night and was our leading scorer, so the energy that he expended during a game was much more than the average player did. It was just phenomenal what he did."

As the Chicago Bulls' general manager, Thorn drafted Michael Jordan. Thorn joked that without Jordan he would not have a Wikipedia page and he would not have people sending him items to autograph asking for his signature and "by the way" asking for Jordan's signature as well.

Thorn won the 2002 NBA Executive of the Year Award after acquiring Kidd and building the Nets into a championship contender. Thorn recalled that when he rejoined the Nets, "The team had challenges defending, rebounding and passing, which as you know are the ingredients of a 26 win season." After trading for Kidd, Thorn's Nets won 52 games, one of the best one season turnarounds in league history.

Maurice Cheeks followed Thorn. In the video tribute before Cheeks spoke, Erving said, "He had a very, very high basketball IQ. He was a champion, he was an All-Star and I loved playing with him." Erving and Billy Cunningham presented Cheeks. Cheeks is known as a quiet man of few words but he gave the most emotionally gripping speech of the evening. He opened by saying, "This is amazing and Grant, you're right, this will be short." Cheeks credited his experiences growing up on the South Side of Chicago for teaching him to look out for others as others had looked out for him. He said, "My life has been a string of small moments that led to amazing experiences." Cheeks mentioned his high school teammate William Dise, who was a highly recruited player who signed with West Texas State on condition that the school also sign Cheeks, a skinny and lightly recruited prospect. Cheeks said that his career would have gone much differently if not for Dise.

Cheeks thanked Coach Cunningham and said that he was the kind of coach that you never wanted to let down. Cheeks praised Erving for teaching him how to be a pro and Cheeks also thanked his veteran teammates Andrew Toney, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Caldwell Jones, and Henry Bibby. Cheeks said, "Over the years I have had many reasons to thank the Lord and two of them are my beautiful kids...I'm proud to be your dad and I love you both." Cheeks thanked his three brothers, one of whom was murdered in 1991. Cheeks started to get emotional at that point and mentioned that Charles Barkley told him not to cry but Cheeks broke down when he talked about "my very first coach, Mama Cheeks" and all that she did for him and their family--including calling out Maurice's name and his brothers' names so that they would come inside when it got dark. Mama Cheeks attended the ceremony and she looked very proud. As Cheeks wept, Erving walked over, gently grabbed his shoulders and said softly, "Come on Mo, you can do it," lending a helping hand much like Cheeks had lent a helping hand to National Anthem singer Natalie Gilbert years ago. I felt as a kid that the 76ers were a special team with special people and moments like this just confirm that. I am so blessed to have watched that team and then to have had the opportunity to interview Erving, Cunningham, Jones and Pat Williams. Cheeks concluded by thanking the Hall of Fame for "thinking enough of my contributions to the sport to select me for such an honor. I cannot think of a better way to celebrate my 40 years in the NBA and my 62nd birthday (on Saturday). Thank you and God bless."

Later in the program, Charlie Scott was presented by Jerry Colangelo, Dave Cowens, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood and Roy Williams. During the video tribute to Scott, Erving noted, "He broke the color barrier very much like Jackie Robinson did (in baseball), except it was getting a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina and integrating the school. Charlie Scott was a monster on the basketball court. He could score inside, he could score outside."

Scott began by explaining how he selected his presenters. He said that they were each friends of his for over 40 years. Scott joked that his wife said if they have known him for 40 years and still speak to him then they all deserve to be on the stage with him. "This is an honor that I always dreamed of but could never imagine happening," Scott declared. He called Dean Smith "My mentor and the person who I admire the most in my life." Scott thanked his North Carolina teammates, including Larry Miller, for standing beside him during the sometimes difficult racial integration process. He individually thanked each of his presenters. Regarding Erving and Cowens, the never hesitant to shoot Scott quipped that he helped each of them become great rebounders.

Scott concluded by thanking his wife and children. He said that he once asked a friend to describe him honestly, good and bad. Scott asked his family to raise their hands if they disagreed with this characterization: "People sometimes might take your aloofness as arrogance. You can become very demanding in getting your way. You don't know when to let things go. You never give compliments. You think you're always right....The shocker was his next sentence: Let me tell you about your bad points!" Scott paused after each point and noted that no one in his family raised their hands. He laughed and said, "This was the individual you had to deal with. Your unconditional love and understanding have been my North Star."

In 2015, I wondered if Julius Erving had been a Hall of Fame presenter more than anyone else. At that time, Erving had been selected as a presenter nine times. Now, including last night, he has been a presenter 13 times:

1995: Presented Cheryl Miller
1996-2000: None
2001: Presented Moses Malone
2002-2003: None
2004: Presented Clyde Drexler
2005: None
2006: Presented Dominique Wilkins
2007-2010: None
2011: Presented Artis Gilmore
2012: Presented Katrina McClain, Ralph Sampson and the All-American Red Heads
2013-2014: None
2015: Presented John Calipari
2016: Presented Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal
2017: None
2018: Presented Maurice Cheeks and Charlie Scott

That list of names spans multiple generations and includes teammates, opponents and players who grew up idolizing Erving. What a tribute to Erving's deep and continuing impact on the sport!

There is a lot of depth to Ray Allen beyond his basketball accomplishments. When you read his words or listen to him speak you understand that he is a remarkable person, not just a great basketball player. Allen spoke repeatedly of the dedication, discipline, perfectionism and sacrifice that it takes to become a great individual player and to become a two-time NBA champion. Those words resonate and are true but what resonated the most is when he talked about his children. Allen was the only enshrinee who talked to/about each of his children specifically and described why each child is so special to him. Allen emphatically declared, "All of you kids are my greatest legacy. I learned in life that our kids pay attention to everything we do, everything we say and everything we don't say and everything we don't do. So I have to be an example to these young people at all times and we got to make sure that we are an example to the kids in our lives at all times, because we do set the tone and the example in all of our communities."

Allen also said, "I don't believe in talent. I'm here because I worked hard my whole life. Without that work, no one in this room would know who I am except my family. So to all the kids around the world watching, paying attention and aspiring to be like us or even on this stage, put the work in and watch the magical ride you go on."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:15 PM

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets: Subtraction by Addition

The Houston Rockets have signed Carmelo Anthony to a one year contract, reportedly for the veteran minimum $2.4 million. Anthony received a buyout in excess of $25 million from the Atlanta Hawks en route from Oklahoma City to Houston, so he is not suffering a significant salary decrease after making over $26 million last season while playing for the Thunder--but this is a humbling drop in status for Anthony, a 10-time All-Star who finished third in the 2013 NBA regular season MVP voting. Anthony averaged a career-low 16.2 ppg last season while shooting a career-low .404 from the field. He performed even worse in the playoffs (11.8 ppg on .375 field goal shooting) and yet he was vocally displeased about having his minutes cut and his role diminished.

In his prime, Anthony was an excellent one on one scorer who could be effective both in the post and facing up on the perimeter. Anthony averaged at least 20.8 ppg in each of his first 14 seasons, including three seasons when he scored at least 28 ppg, and he won the 2013 scoring title (28.7 ppg). However, he was never a strong defender, he passed the ball in spurts (as opposed to consistently making timely, accurate passes when the situation dictated it) and he was an average rebounder at best considering his size and the big minutes that he played.

Daryl Morey and the Rockets' brain trust believe that a one-dimensional scorer whose NBA teams never won anything of significance during his prime is the missing piece to Houston's championship puzzle. I disagree with that notion.

Anthony won an NCAA title as a freshman at Syracuse when he was a basketball prodigy who could physically overwhelm less talented players. He won a record three Olympic gold medals as a member of Team USA, but his contributions to those victories have been somewhat overhyped in the mainstream media. I gave Anthony a C- minus grade in my Team USA report card for the 2008 Olympics, noting, "Team USA outscored the opposition by 86 points overall when Anthony was on the court and they outscored the opposition by just 25 points when Anthony was on the court during medal round play. Among the five players I tracked, Anthony is the only one who had a negative on court rating for an entire game--and this happened twice: Angola outscored Team USA 46-42 when Anthony was on the court and in the gold medal game Spain outscored Team USA 49-38 when Anthony was on the court. It is no coincidence that Anthony was not in the game for the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter of the gold medal game; throughout the Olympics, Anthony was often on the bench when Team USA made its best runs and when he was in games during such runs it was generally James, Wade and/or Bryant who shouldered most of the load." Anthony performed similarly during the 2012 Olympics, after which I graded him B- and commented, "Anthony is a shoot first player--in both NBA and FIBA competition--who can rebound when he is so inclined but is indifferent at best defensively. When he shot well he provided instant offense but it is noteworthy that when the score was close he was often on the bench; he scored just eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting versus Spain in the gold medal game as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul did the heavy lifting." During the 2016 Olympics, Anthony again struggled in the gold medal game, finishing with just seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting.

So, the idea that Anthony is a proven winner based on his championships won at the NCAA and FIBA levels but has just been in bad situations in the NBA is a distortion, to say the least. The NCAA is obviously not nearly as competitive as the NBA, so leading a team to an NCAA title is no guarantee that a player can lead an NBA team to a title. Elite FIBA play is more competitive than NCAA play--but Anthony was a role player for Team USA behind, at various times, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade.

Anthony has never led a team to the NBA Finals--something that he has in common with his new teammates James Harden and Chris Paul--and he seems to be blissfully unaware that his one dimensional skill set has declined rather precipitously.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has tweaked his offensive system from "Seven Seconds or Less" (ball movement leading to open shots) to a very isolation-heavy scheme that relies on Harden or Paul to dribble, dribble, dribble until either the dribbler or a teammate gets open. It is not clear if D'Antoni envisions Anthony as a third dribble, dribble, dribble guy--which would not be wise, as Anthony does not have the passing skills of Harden or Paul--or as a spot up sniper. Unless Anthony has had a major leap in self-understanding this summer, he apparently pictures himself as a starting player who should get a significant number of touches. Anthony is replacing Trevor Ariza (who left Houston to sign with Phoenix as a free agent), a career role player who nevertheless is also a legit two way performer who made a significant contribution to the Lakers' 2009 championship team and who had an impact at both ends of the court during Houston's two Western Conference Finals runs during the Harden era (2015, 2018). The Rockets needed Ariza to play tenacious defense, hit open three pointers and quickly move the ball to a teammate if he was not open. Ariza did very well in all three areas but it would be surprising to see Anthony (1) accept such a role and (2) be successful in such a role.

Team chemistry can be difficult to predict. Prior to last season, I underestimated the positive impact that Chris Paul would have on the Rockets--the Rockets improved defensively in no small part due to Paul's play and the example he set--but I was right to predict that Paul would either not be available or not be effective deep in the playoffs when the team would need him most; that is a consistent pattern in Paul's career and it was true again last season, as an injury kept him out of games six and seven of the Western Conference Finals while the Rockets squandered a 3-2 lead over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Anthony's consistent pattern is that he scores a lot but does not have much impact on team success, at least at the championship level--and last season provided indications that Anthony is not quite the potent scorer that he used to be, though he would undoubtedly claim that this was because of the role he played for the Thunder and that he can still be effective if placed in a different role.

Maybe I will be proven wrong about Anthony. Maybe Anthony will accept being a stretch four in D'Antoni's system. Maybe D'Antoni will figure out a way to give Anthony an expanded role without compromising what Harden and Paul do best, and maybe D'Antoni will even manage to effectively hide Anthony's defensive weaknesses.

I will be surprised but not shocked if Anthony has a decent regular season, particularly if Paul persuades Anthony to accept a lesser role--but I will be shocked if Anthony is effective in meaningful minutes during the playoffs, particularly after the first round. That just would not fit Anthony's pattern and it is very unlikely that he will create a new pattern at this stage of his career; it is much more likely that even if Anthony is somewhat effective as a scorer he will give up more on defense  than he provides on offense.

Daryl Morey has gone all-in with D'Antoni, Harden and Paul, which should prove interesting. D'Antoni has never taken a team to the NBA Finals. Harden consistently disappears in the clutch and has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this offseason (instead of adding something new to his game--which he has not done for several years--in recent photos he looks out of shape and he has been accused of being involved in an altercation at an Arizona nightclub, which has become an unfortunate pattern of behavior for Harden). Paul often gets hurt (or disappears) when his team needs him most. Anthony can be a one year rental at a bargain basement price (in terms of NBA dollars) if he does not fit in but the clock is ticking in terms of how long Paul can continue to perform at a high level; the Rockets will be paying Paul $40 million per season when Paul is in his late 30s, which could end up being the worst contract given to a point guard since Gilbert Arenas was collecting NBA checks long after his career had ended.

I predict that Houston will not return to the Western Conference Finals and that Anthony will not be re-signed by the Rockets. Based on his raw career numbers, Anthony will likely be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame eventually but it would be fair to say that he has not maximized his potential, at least in terms of becoming a complete player and someone who could lead a team to an NBA title.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Leonard-DeRozan Trade Raises More Questions Than it Answers

The long, bizarre Kawhi Leonard saga has come to a quick, bizarre end (or new beginning): the San Antonio Spurs have traded the disgruntled 2014 Finals MVP/two-time Defensive Player of the Year/two-time All-NBA First Team member to the Toronto Raptors (along with Danny Green) for four-time All-Star/2018 All-NBA Second Team member DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and a protected 2019 first round draft pick.

There is often a rush to judgment about trades, when the reality is that it may not be possible to fairly evaluate the outcome of a trade for quite some time. If there is a "winner" in an NBA trade then it is usually the team that acquired the best individual player. Here, though, the won/loss calculation is affected by many variables/questions, including but not limited to (1) Leonard's health, (2) Leonard's attitude, (3) the role that the Spurs expect DeRozan to play and how willingly he accepts that role and (4) how one perceives the options that both teams had compared to the decisions that they made.

Leonard is generally considered to be a top five player and it is rare for such players to be traded during their primes but the Leonard situation is unusual, if not unique; a once beloved player who starred for perhaps the best organization in the NBA has been engaged in an extended feud with the franchise. Neither side has said much to clarify the situation but it appears that the main issues are (1) Leonard does not trust and/or disagrees with how the team's medical staff diagnosed/treated his leg injury and (2) Leonard is upset that the organization as a whole and/or individual players within the organization have publicly suggested that he could have returned from the injury faster than he did.

Neither Leonard individually nor the Spurs collectively are inclined to give lengthy, public statements, so we may never know exactly what happened. All that we know for sure is that Leonard no longer wanted to play for the Spurs. It has been reported that his preferred destination is the L.A. Lakers but the Spurs understandably did not want to trade their best player to their historic rival, particularly after that rival just acquired LeBron James.

Once Leonard made it clear that he did not want to stay in San Antonio, the Spurs did not have much leverage. They could not get equal value for Leonard, as the few players who are on par with him are not available. The Spurs could either have sought to bring back young players and/or several draft picks or they could do what they did: acquire an All-Star and attempt to maintain contender status, hopefully while adding/developing other players along the way.

The Spurs have been perennial contenders for the better part of the past two decades, so rebuilding is not in the franchise's DNA. However, it is far from certain that a team led by DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge can realistically expect to win a championship. That being said, the Spurs are almost certainly better off with DeRozan in the fold for the next three seasons as opposed to keeping Leonard for one year, only to likely have him depart without getting anything in return.

How you feel about this trade as a Toronto fan depends on how you perceive Toronto's recent playoff runs. If you believe that the Raptors would have made it to the NBA Finals multiple times if not for LeBron James, then you probably believe that the Raptors should have stood pat in the wake of James' departure to the Western Conference. If you believe that the Raptors were asking too much of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and/or if you believe that DeRozan and Lowry have already peaked, then you probably believe that bringing Leonard in--even as a one year rental--is worth the risk. It is safe to assume that Masai Ujiri has already decided that the DeRozan-Lowry tandem is not a championship-winning duo, which is why Ujiri is willing to roll the dice with Leonard and then possibly rebuild if that does not work.

Spurs' fans are no doubt disappointed that the franchise could not salvage the relationship with Leonard but DeRozan is not a bad consolation prize. While DeRozan has yet to prove that he can lead a team to a championship, the Spurs are structured differently than most teams; DeRozan will not be expected to carry all or most of the load but rather to--as Bill Belichick would put it to his New England Patriots--do his job. If DeRozan scores 20-25 ppg efficiently and puts forth good effort defensively then he could be a key cog on a 50-55 win San Antonio team that would be in the mix for Western Conference supremacy.

This deal looks like a win-win, at least based on the realistic options both teams faced: the Spurs transformed a disgruntled (and possibly not fully healthy) top five player who was on his way out the door into a perennial All-Star, while the Raptors acquired a top five player who could possibly lead the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance. 

The two obvious X factors for this deal are (1) Leonard's health and (2) Leonard's attitude. It is far from clear how serious Leonard's injury was and where he is in the rehabilitation process. It is also not clear if/when Leonard will report to Toronto and how committed he will be to leading the Raptors. If Leonard is still injured or if he has a bad attitude about the deal then the Raptors are much worse off in the short run--but that is a risk that Ujiri is willing to take based, presumably, on his belief that the Raptors had already gone as far as they could as previously constructed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 PM

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