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Monday, February 20, 2017
The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce
The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark.
The outcome seemed scripted. The West led almost the entire way and it became obvious very early that Anthony Davis--who plays for the host city's New Orleans Pelicans--was going to be the MVP. Russell Westbrook, the only player on the court who ever seemed to even remotely take competition seriously (though his intensity was ratcheted down about 50%), had a shot at not only winning the MVP for an unprecedented third straight year but also breaking Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star record of 42 points. Instead, with the East still within striking distance, West Coach Steve Kerr benched Westbrook for the last several minutes. Wedtbrook finished with 41 points. Davis ended up with 52 points and the MVP trophy. I cannot recall a coach freezing out his best player with the outcome up for grabs. It looked like maybe everyone but Westbrook had agreed that Davis would be the MVP, so Westbrook had to be taken out before he took over the game.
Last year, I wrote that it would be a shame if Chamberlain's record fell to someone who made a bunch of uncontested shots. Sadly, that is exactly what Davis did. The NBA All Star Game has been heading downhill for years but yesterday's farce was a new low. It is difficult to take seriously any statistics or records from a game in which no one played hard.
No one reasonably expects the All-Star Game to have the same intensity level of the playoffs but players used to at least take the outcome seriously.
In the 1980s, the games were fun and included fancy plays but no one literally lay down on the court; shots were contested and it was considered a badge of honor to try to block a dunk, as opposed to cowering in fear or treating competition like a joke.
I am not sure how to solve this problem but I wish that the best players loved to compete more thsn they worried about protecting their brand.
Imagining the Young Julius Erving Playing in Today's NBA
"You had to see the man and hear the music." John Papanek, attempting to explain Julius Erving's greatness
I respect greatness from any era, so this article should not be interpreted as a shot at today's top players--but can you imagine a young Julius Erving playing under today's no hand-checking rules, let alone in an era that emphasizes the value of three point shots, layups and free throws above all other kinds of shots? Erving was a capable three point shooter (his career three point shooting percentage is artificially deflated by half court heaves, because during most of his era the three point shot was not used as a regular weapon). Everyone knows that Erving could attack the hoop for layups and to draw fouls. In today's game, Erving could be a prototype point forward, driving to the hoop and either finishing or kicking the ball to open shooters; he possessed the necessary ballhandling and passing skills to fill that role but the teams for which he played and the era during which he played placed him in a different role most of the time, though he provided glimpses of those aforementioned skills.
The sad reality is that even most so-called basketball experts have no clue about Erving's complete skill set; there is precious little footage of his three years with the New York Nets (during which he won three regular season MVPs, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles and two championships) and even less footage of his two seasons with the Virginia Squires, when he put up some incredible numbers--especially in the playoffs, including a 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg stat line as a rookie in the 1972 ABA playoffs. How extraordinary is that trifecta? Forgive me for quoting myself to answer my own question: "The only other player in ABA/NBA history who averaged at least 30 ppg
and at least 20 rpg in the same postseason is Wilt Chamberlain
(1960-62, 64); the only other players who led the NBA or ABA in playoff
scoring average and playoff rebounding average during the same
postseason are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA),
Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of
those four players came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average."
Triple doubles are the talk of the NBA this season. Erving was more of a double-double threat than a triple double threat but as a rookie he had a playoff game with 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists. My research uncovered no other game in pro basketball history during which a player matched Erving's production in all three of those categories.
Erving never played for stats or for glory; in his 16 year career, the only milestone that he openly pursued was trying to reach the 30,000 point club during the final games of his last season. At the time (and for some time afterward), only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain had scored at least 30,000 points, so Erving was the only "mid-size" player to cross that threshold.
Check out this video snippet from the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game, played shortly after the conclusion of Erving's rookie campaign; he looks like a modern player teleported five decades into the past, almost like the old Scottie Pippen commercial depicting Pippen dunking against 1950s era players--except Erving was not taking on chumps or patsies here: the NBA roster was stacked with nine future Hall of Famers, including Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. In the video, Erving puts his entire skill set on display: devastating defense (watch him fly out of nowhere to block a shot, catch the ball and then fire a great outlet pass), rebounding in traffic, post up moves and some dazzling dribbling sequences (including a right to left between the legs crossover dribble that is under control, deceptively quick and did not require palming/carrying the ball):
Notice that Erving did not find it necessary to draw attention to himself with any antics after he made a great move; he let his game do his talking for him. Also notice that Erving was not showing off; he did a crossover move or a reverse pivot because those moves were necessary to beat the defense and because he knew that even though those moves might look flashy they were not high risk maneuvers for him because he had worked on his craft.
Sadly, no known footage exists of Erving's most spectacular move from that game; in the fourth quarter, he stole the ball from Paul Silas, dribbled downcourt, took off from the free throw line (you read that correctly) and dunked over Oscar Robertson AND Archie Clark (who, by the way, was regularly executing a devastating crossover dribble move in the NBA before Tim Hardaway or Allen Iverson were even born). I read about this dunk when I was a kid and I always dreamed about (1) seeing it and/or (2) learning the full story. Seeing it may never happen but I was blessed with the opportunity to interview Erving, Silas and several other players from that game. I told their stories in my oral history of the two ABA-NBA All-Star Games.
That was one of the first pieces that I wrote as a credentialed NBA writer (as opposed to a freelancer who did not cover games). I formulated my questions very carefully; when I asked about Erving's dunk I just said something to the effect of, "I understand that Erving made a great play in the fourth quarter. What do you remember about it?" The thing that struck me is that everyone who I interviewed essentially told the same basic story, even though the interviews were conducted separately. It sounds like an urban legend to say that Erving jumped from the free throw line and dunked under game conditions but that is what was reported at the time and that is how the participants still remember the play.
There is a lot of talk about LeBron James perhaps being the greatest athlete in pro basketball history. James is a tremendous athlete and a wonderful basketball player; I have covered and praised his exploits since he entered the league--but I wish that the commentators who are granted the most air time and bandwidth cared enough about their craft to do some research and understand that Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were Olympic-caliber track and field athletes in addition to being dominant basketball players and that Erving could match any comparably sized modern player in terms of speed and jumping ability, while also possessing solid basketball fundamentals (Erving played three years of college ball and was praised by his coaches at all levels for his high basketball IQ).
I enjoy watching today's great players. I predicted and documented Russell Westbrook's ascension nearly three years ago, at a time when many "experts" questioned his ability and/or willingness to play the point guard position properly; Westbrook is having a historic 2016-17 season and is making a case to be considered a Pantheon-level player, but he probably will not win the MVP because the media voters will hold his team's record against him even though it is obvious how much he has elevated a weak supporting cast. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard are four other great players who are having wonderful seasons--but in our collective rush to praise those players and with the natural human tendency to think that whatever is happening right now must be the greatest thing ever, we should not forget that some athletes and competitors have skill sets that transcend any particular era. Julius Erving is one of those players.
The John Papanek quote that serves as the epigraph for this article may be my favorite quote about Erving. Before writing that line, Papanek recited a litany of Erving's numbers and concluded that the numbers don't fully tell the story. The numbers can always be manipulated based on the alleged overall competitiveness of a particular era or based on "pace" or based on a host of supposedly objective factors but Papanek understood the deeper truth: to appreciate Erving's greatness you "had to see the man and hear the music."
Brent Musburger's final game as a play by play announcer was a fitting finale to his distinguished broadcasting career; in an SEC basketball showdown at Rupp Arena, underdog Georgia raced out to a big lead versus Kentucky, Kentucky stormed back to force overtime and then the favored--but shorthanded--Wildcats held on to beat the Bulldogs 90-81. One of Musburger's most famous broadcasts is the legendary triple overtime game five of the 1976 NBA Finals, so it was only right that his last game went into overtime. Some may lament that Musburger's last game was not a big-time championship event worthy of his status but I prefer to focus on how entertaining this particular game was, how much joy Musburger derived from doing this game and the outpouring of appreciation directed toward Musburger from fans and from his peers. Musburger's career has had some sensational ups and a few downs but he always kept the focus on the games themselves, so that is a worthy approach to take regarding his final game.
Color commentator Jay Bilas, Musburger's partner in his final game,
provided an eloquent tribute about how much he enjoyed not only doing
games with Musburger but also watching Musburger as a young sports fan. My earliest memories of Musburger extend back to the late 1970s, when he hosted the NFL Today, the forerunner of the pregame shows that are now featured on every network that covers the league. I watched Musburger, Irv Cross and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder every Sunday as a kid, even though CBS had the NFC package and my favorite team (the Cleveland Browns) played in the AFC.
Musburger was a central figure in CBS' NBA coverage in the 1970s and 1980s. Those were my formative years as an NBA fan (and as a sports fan in general), so Musburger will always be inextricably linked in my mind with the beginning of my lifelong journey as a sports fan/sports writer. The best era of NBA basketball (at least in my living memory) was the 1980s and when I reflect back on the great rivalries, series and games of that era I hear Musburger's voice narrating the compelling stories that defined that era. Musburger's style never involved burying you under a mountain of facts or statistics but you could always tell that he had done his homework and knew what he was talking about; his broadcasting style was breezy and fun but along the way you could learn something if you paid attention. Musburger also did a great job of seamlessly setting up his color commentator partners, enabling former athletes/coaches to feel comfortable while presenting insider insights about the game. Musburger never acted like he was bigger than the game.
Musburger also worked college basketball, college football, horse racing and many other sports; when Musburger declared at the start of a broadcast "You are looking live" at a particular venue, as a fan you knew that this was a big game.
During his final game, Musburger noted that he was not a broadcaster by training, so he took a conversational approach to his job, as if he were sitting next to you and enjoying a cold one while watching the game. Musburger's enthusiasm for sports never seemed fake or contrived; he was having the time of his life, right along with you.
Fans often asked Musburger which game was his favorite and Musburger's default answer always was, "I hope it's
the next game." Tonight, he told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt that he is out of next games and can now reflect back on his career. Musburger also had a message for young broadcasters and athletes: time passes by quickly, so enjoy every moment. Those are wise words from a famous man who never lost the common touch and who obviously savored every moment of his career. Thank you for the memories, Brent Musburger.
Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler just found out that they do not enjoy similar privileges with the Chicago Bulls.
Wade--who was a key member of three Miami championship teams before leaving the Heat to join the Bulls last summer--and three-time All-Star Butler--who is one of the top all-around players in the NBA--each blasted their teammates on Wednesday night after the Bulls fell apart down the stretch en route to a 119-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Wade declared, "I'm 35 years old, man. I've got three championships. It shouldn't hurt
me more than it hurts these young guys. They have to want it...It has
to change. It has to hurt inside to lose games like this." Butler fumed, "(Expletive teammates) just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of
the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role
to the T. Be a star in your role, man."
The Bulls fined both Wade and Butler and removed both players from the starting lineup in Friday's 100-88 loss to the Miami Heat. Bulls point guard Rajon Rondo--who started alongside Boston's fabled Big Three as the Celtics won the 2008 NBA title--was not disciplined for his public comments that unfavorably compared the leadership of Wade and Butler to the leadership of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the two best players on Boston's championship team. Rondo posted this on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of Garnett and Pierce: "My vets would never go to the media. They would come
to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring
it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was
practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the
team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and
got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work." Rondo emphasized that the only reason he went public with his thoughts is that he felt it was important that someone stick up for the team's young players.
Rondo's message is right on point. TNT's Kenny Smith had a great take on the situation as well, noting that it is cowardly for Wade and Butler to blast their teammates in the media as opposed to approaching them privately one on one.
Perhaps Wade believes that his championship pedigree gives him the right to speak out against his teammates--but Rondo and Smith are right: Wade's words and actions in this case are not the words and actions of a true leader.
Butler has no track record as a leader. He clashed with the since-departed Derrick Rose--the 2011 NBA regular season MVP who once seemed to be a great player and a great leader but recently has not met the standard in either department--last season. Butler's emergence as an individual star during the past few seasons has not correlated with increased team success; this is not to suggest that the Bulls' struggles are Butler's fault but Butler has not yet proven that he has the skill set and temperament necessary to be the best player on a championship team.
The Bulls are paying Wade and Butler a lot of money without receiving much in return, as the team is struggling to just hold on to the eighth playoff spot. The organization has to seriously reconsider how this roster has been constructed.
LeBron James Blames Everyone but Himself for the Cavaliers' Recent Skid
LeBron James has an interesting take on personal responsibility: instead of looking within himself, he looks around to find the person(s) responsible for whatever he believes is not going right. On the rare occasions that the New England Patriots lose, Coach Bill Belichick invariably says that he did not coach well enough. Belichick understands that, in order to achieve maximum success, responsibility inevitably begins at the top. That is true leadership and that is one reason why Belichick's players are so loyal to him and play so hard for him--a facet of Belichick's coaching success that most media members have never understood simply because they are too focused on being offended that Belichick rolls his eyes at their stupid questions. Belichick is not trying to be popular in the media; he is trying to lead his team to championships.
James thinks about things quite differently. "We're top heavy as s---," James declared of his Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost two in a row and five of their last seven but still sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. In case anyone missed the point, James explained that the "top heavy" portion of the roster consists of himself, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while the other players are--in James' view--not particularly good. James urged General Manager David Griffin to not be complacent. James publicly told Griffin that he is not doing a very good job and he offered very specific instructions about what kinds of players Griffin needs to sign as soon as possible.
To his credit, instead of meekly accepting James' ungracious public attacks, Griffin fired back, noting that the Cavaliers' front office is not complacent but that he has observed some complacency on the court--a not so thinly veiled shot at James' admitted tendency to shift into "chill mode" during the regular season. Don't be surprised if James decides to sit out a few games in the very near future as a power play to suggest to the Cavaliers that they are nothing without him.
Keep in mind that the Cleveland Cavaliers have the highest payroll in the league over the past three seasons. It is not like owner Dan Gilbert is pinching pennies and assembling the roster as cheaply as possible. Not only that, we all know that James put this team together. The Cavaliers kept the players he wanted and shipped out the players he did not want. The Cavaliers fired a head coach who had led them to the NBA Finals the year before in order to promote a coach who better related to James. This is not meant to suggest that James has been a bad behind the scenes general manager--but it is meant to suggest that James has no right to act like he had nothing to do with putting this team together just because the Cavaliers have hit a rough patch three months before James feels like playing hard on a nightly basis.
Let's look at Cleveland's current roster. Irving was the Rookie of the Year (2012) and an All-Star before James returned to Cleveland. Love made the All-NBA Second Team in 2012 and finished sixth in the MVP voting that season. When you have three max or near max players, there is not a lot of money left for other players--but the Cavaliers did open up the vault for Tristan Thompson (who is represented by LeBron James' friend) to the tune of more than $15 million per year. The Cavaliers were bidding against themselves, as it is doubtful that any other team would have paid Thompson that much. If General Manager James thought that the Cavaliers were too "top heavy," perhaps he should have suggested to Thompson that he accept a little less so the Cavaliers could have more money to spend on other players. Or maybe James could have accepted less than the max (that idea apparently only occurs to the media with regard to Kobe Bryant's contract).
Griffin recently acquired Kyle Korver, who made the All-Star team in 2015 and who has led the league in three point field goal percentage three times. The team's eighth man in minutes played, Richard Jefferson, twice averaged more than 22 ppg in a season and he was a starter for two NBA Finalists. Yes, Jefferson is 36 years old but he is only playing 19 mpg; he is a wily veteran who has shown that he still has some bounce in his legs.
The Cavaliers have spent a ton of money to surround James with two All-Stars in their primes, a (recent) former All-Star, a role player who is represented by James' friend and several other specialists who have been hand-picked by James. Does James think that a $127 million payroll is a sign of complacency? How much talent does James need around him so that he feels like he can contend for a championship?
One fascinating aspect of this is how the media either supports James' criticisms or, at worst, simply deems these outbursts as the inevitable price the Cavaliers must pay for signing James--a price that most say is well worth it. That take is only acceptable if it comes from people who apply the same reasoning toward other superstars--for instance, Kobe Bryant.
Center and point guard are historically the two most important positions in basketball. During Bryant's prime, his L.A. Lakers surrounded him with Kwame Brown at center and Smush Parker at point guard. During the 2006-07 season, Brown split time at center with Andrew Bynum, a second year injury prone player whose conditioning, work ethic and maturity left much to be desired at that time. Bryant carried the Lakers to back to back playoff berths in the tough Western Conference but he was understandably frustrated by how horrible his supporting cast was. Some fans encountered Bryant in a parking lot and Bryant, unaware that he was being recorded, accurately described how poorly Andrew Bynum was playing. Bryant's comments became a huge national story and were cited as proof that he is a bad teammate and a bad leader. The reality, as Bynum told me years later, is that Bryant was a tremendous mentor for Bynum. Bryant helped mold Bynum into an All-Star. How many players have developed in that fashion while playing alongside James? James likes to team up with already formed stars such as Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
It is also worth noting that Bryant did not publicly blast his general manager and his teammate to the national media but rather he let his guard down while talking to some fans. The Lakers later added one one-time All-Star to the mix, shuffled around some of their role players, and--behind Bryant's extraordinary play--advanced to three straight NBA Finals, winning back to back titles in 2009 and 2010.
James thinks that his current team is "top heavy"? Do you remember who was the eighth man in mpg for Bryant's 2009 championship team? Luke Walton, an injury-prone career journeyman. The seventh man was Jordan Farmar, a young player who was not even in the league three years later. Heck, the third man was starting point guard Derek Fisher, who would not have started for any other championship contender in recent memory. When the Lakers won the 2010 title, their eighth man was Farmar and their seventh man was Shannon Brown, who just two years earlier had been the 15th man for James' Cavaliers (who are still mocked as a team that was supposedly bereft of talent and depth).
Yes, Bryant had a private moment of frustration (that was then publicized because the fans recorded his off the cuff comments) after two years of playing alongside subpar teammates during his prime but he also took it upon himself to mold the Lakers into a mini-dynasty in the next three seasons. Years later, Bryant joked that the Lakers started Parker at point guard because they were too cheap to sign a true NBA caliber starting point guard--but when Bryant was going to battle with Parker he was not berating him in the press the way that James has indicated that everyone on his team not named Irving and Love is essentially worthless.
Speaking of Bryant and the Lakers, boy it sure is a good thing that the Lakers no longer have that Bryant albatross around their necks. Now all of their young players can show the world just how great they are and just how much Bryant's selfish gunning held them back. I mean, at the very least they can roll over a bottom-feeding team like Dallas, right? Dallas owner Mark Cuban loves "analytics" and has expressed theoretical support for tanking, so it is reasonable to assume that his Mavericks are at least considering heading into the tank pretty soon. The rising Lakers should have no problem with the Mavericks, right? Hey, wait--that must be a typo: Did Dallas really beat the Lakers 122-73? I know what happened; the Lakers are still so traumatized by the way that Bryant selfishly outscored Dallas 62-61 after three quarters of play several years ago that the mere sight of Dallas uniforms induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Yeah, that's the ticket, because no matter what happens the key narratives much stay intact: LeBron James is a great teammate who is a pass-first player (even though he publicly belittles his teammates and ranks fifth in pro basketball history in career points per game), while Kobe Bryant is a bad teammate whose selfish gunning cost his team (even though Bryant won five championships and was annually his team's best playmaker despite playing in a system that does not produce high individual assist averages).
It really is OK to acknowledge that James is a great scorer who likes to shoot the ball. Those indisputable facts do not in any way diminish the equally indisputable fact that James is a great passer. It really is OK to acknowledge that Bryant's strong-willed ways might not be everyone's cup of tea but he was a great leader and champion.
Regarding James' recent public comments, maybe James is a master motivator who has the pulse of his team. Maybe James will lead the Cavaliers to another championship; that certainly would not surprise me. My point in comparing the media coverage of James' career to the media coverage of Bryant's career is that the media members who killed Bryant for his alleged basketball sins are hypocritical for twisting themselves into knots to try to justify words from James that they would declare to be unacceptable had Bryant uttered them.
Evaluating the NBA's New Voting Procedure for All-Star Starters
NBA All-Star starters used to be chosen entirely by fan vote but this season the NBA decided to include input from both current players and selected media members. The fan vote is now weighted at 50%, while the player vote and media vote count for 25% each. In the event of a tie, the tiebreaker is based on the fan voting.
The NBA announced the final voting results on Thursday January 19. The 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounpo and Jimmy Butler, plus guards Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan, while the 2017 Western Conference All-Star starters are frontcourt players Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, plus guards Stephen Curry and James Harden.
Under the old system, the East All-Star starters would have been James, Antetokounpo, Joel Embiid, Irving and Dwyane Wade, while the West All-Star starters would have been Durant, Zaza Pachulia, Leonard, Curry and Harden. Including the players and the media in the voting process resulted in Butler and DeRozan starting over Embiid and Wade in the East and Davis starting over Pachulia in the West. Fans are often accused of stuffing the (metaphorical) ballot box for their favorite players even if those players do not deserve to be All-Stars and that would certainly seem to be the case with Wade (popular veteran playing in a big market), Embiid (young player who many have adopted as the poster boy for Sam Hinkie's infamous tanking "process") and Pachulia (who apparently garnered support not only from the Bay Area but perhaps from his entire home country of Georgia).
The value of starting versus coming off of the bench in the All-Star Game is largely ceremonial. While total All-Star selections is a category that merits at least some attention when evaluating a player's career, no one seriously considers how many times a particular player started versus how many times he was chosen as a reserve (or even as an injury replacement, as was the case for Tom Chambers in 1987 when he filled in for Ralph Sampson and won the MVP).
My take on the fan vote prior to this season was that as long as the fans selected five worthy All-Stars in each conference--even if the selected players were not necessarily the very best players at their respective positions in each conference--the coaches who select the reserves would balance things out by taking any players who had been "snubbed." If you look at the All-Star voting over the years, even when the fans made some questionable decisions (such as Dan Issel over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977) the players who they picked deserved to be All-Stars (A.C. Green, 1990 All-Star starter, is perhaps one exception, though he was a key rebounder/defender for a team that had just made three straight Finals appearances and had won back to back titles in 1987-88). The All-Star Game is for the fans and as long as they are not making a mockery of their voting privileges they should have some voice in the process.
The movement to make Pachulia an All-Star may have resulted in the rule change. Pachulia, who is averaging 5.6 ppg and 6.1 rpg this season, has called the new voting process "Zaza rules." It would have been a travesty if Pachulia--who did not receive a single media member vote and who finished 12th among West frontcourt players in the player vote--had made the All-Star team at all, let alone as a starter. While stronger cases could be made for Wade and Embiid, I would not select either player as an All-Star in 2017. So, the NBA's decision to reduce the importance of fan voting from 100% to 50% looks like a good idea.
However, it is important to note that the players (1) have obvious biases based on loyalty to teammates and/or rivalries with opposing players and (2) did not always take voting very seriously. Matthew Dellavedova and Goran Dragic each received six player votes as an All-Star starter, with all of those votes presumably coming from inside their respective locker rooms. Dion Waiters and Mo Williams each received one vote. While Dragic made the All-NBA Third Team in 2014 and Williams made the All-Star team in 2009, none of those four players is even close to being an All-Star in 2017, let alone being one of the top two guards in the East.
The players have lobbied to have a voice in this process and if they want to continue to have a voice then they are obligated to take voting seriously. I am often justifiably critical of the way that media members evaluate players but the media All-Star voters did an excellent job in 2017--better than the fans or the players. Only five West guards received votes: Russell Westbrook (93), James Harden (91), Stephen Curry (6), Chris Paul (1) and Klay Thompson (1). Nine frontcourt players in the West received votes, led by Durant (94), Leonard (91) and Davis (78). DeMarcus Cousins (11) was a distant fourth, with Marc Gasol, Draymond Green, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan each receiving five votes or less. Seven East guards received votes, with Isaiah Thomas (61) and DeRozan (55) outpacing Irving (32), Kyle Lowry (27), John Wall (15), Wade (1) and Kemba Walker (1). James (96), Antetokounpo (93) and Butler (70) led 11 frontcourt players in the East who received votes. Kevin Love (15) was the only other East frontcourt player who received at least 10 votes.
The tiebreaker system came into play twice. Thomas won the media vote and finished second in the player vote but because he was only fourth in fan voting he lost out to DeRozan, who also had a weighted score of 2.75. DeRozan finished third in the fan voting, beating Thomas 796,112 to 755,102. Curry, Harden and Westbrook each had weighted scores of 2.0. Westbrook won both the media vote and the player vote but he finished third in the fan vote and thus will have to depend on the coaches to select him. Since Curry and Harden are more popular among fans than Westbrook, Westbrook had no chance of being a starter either under the new system or under the old system.
Here are my choices for the 2017 All-Star starters, with a brief explanation for each selection:
LeBron James: Best all-around player in the league and best player on the Eastern Conference's best team (25.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 8.3 apg).
Jimmy Butler: Outstanding two way player who is posting career-highs in scoring, rebounding and assists after moving to small forward to enable the newly acquired Wade to remain at shooting guard (24.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.8 apg).
Giannis Antetokounpo:Milwaukee Bucks are in playoff contention largely because of his efforts (23.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.6 apg).
Kyrie Irving:Most stars who play alongside James are forced to accept vastly reduced roles but Irving has come the closest to being a legitimate 1b (at least offensively) to James (23.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.6 apg).
Isaiah Thomas:Clearly the best player for a Boston team that is fighting for second place in the East and emerging as a possible playoff threat for Cleveland (28.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.0 apg).
Kevin Durant:Has established himself as the best player on the team with the best record, an impressive feat considering that one of his teammates is the reigning two-time regular season MVP (26.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.7 apg).
Kawhi Leonard: The Spurs are indisputably his team now and they remain a championship contender even after losing the defense/leadership of Tim Duncan (25.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.1 apg)
Anthony Davis: He is posting awesome numbers for a Pelicans team that started slowly but is now contending for a playoff spot(28.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.3 apg).
Russell Westbrook: He is well on his way to averaging a triple double for the entire season and his supporting cast is so weak that his team needs 30-10-10 from him on a nightly basis just to compete (30.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 10.4 apg).
Stephen Curry: He should not be punished for accepting a 1b role on a team that might win 70 games for the second season in a row (24.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.1 apg).
I generally prefer bigger guards to smaller guards, so why did I not take DeRozan in the East and Harden in the West? Both players clearly deserve to be All-Stars. None of the top guards in the East are great defenders (other that perhaps John Wall but his Wizards have underachieved until recently), so the All-Star selections by necessity are based mainly on offense. Irving's ballhandling, shooting range and playmaking skills elevate him over DeRozan, even though DeRozan is stronger and has a great midrange game. I typically cast a jaundiced eye toward undersized guards like Thomas but Thomas is a tremendous clutch player and leader. I don't have a big problem (no pun intended) with taking DeRozan over Thomas but Thomas would be my choice.
Westbrook is without question the best player in the NBA this season, so he should have been one of the starting guards in the West. Harden's statistics have predictably increased in Mike D'Antoni's point guard-friendly system but I would still rather have Curry, a proven leader and proven clutch scorer whose statistics reliably translate into sustained team success. Offensively, Curry is at least as good as Harden even though Harden plays in a system that enables him to put up gaudier numbers. Defensively, while it is true that Curry can be overpowered by bigger players it is also true that his sound fundamentals and quick hands help him to be at least adequate at that end of the court. Opposing teams attack him not so much because he is a bad defender but rather because (1) his backcourt mate Klay Thompson is a first rate defender and (2) it is good strategy to try to wear down a dynamic offensive player by forcing him to defend. The All-Star team should not be selected just by looking at the leaders in various statistical categories (whether those categories are basic box score or "advanced") but rather by considering each player's skill set and his role for his team.
Russell Westbrook Versus James Harden: Should the MVP be Selected Based on Analysis or Narrative?
It has become apparent that, barring injury or some unlikely and unforeseen circumstance, either Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win the 2016-17 NBA regular season MVP award. My default position regarding the NBA regular season MVP award is that the recipient should be the league's best all-around player, unless there is a player who is so dominant in one or two categories that his dominance outweighs all other considerations; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are prototypical examples of the former type of player, while Shaquille O'Neal is a prototypical example of the latter type of player.
It is obvious that the media members who annually vote for this award do not share my criteria. Bryant and O'Neal only won one regular season MVP each despite being, respectively, the best all-around player and most dominant player in the NBA for several years. James has fared somewhat better in MVP voting than Bryant and O'Neal but James--who inherited best all-around regular season player in the league status from Bryant circa 2009 or 2010--arguably deserved even more than the four MVPs he has received. Three years ago, many voters became tired of voting for James and looked for narratives (excuses) each season to elevate at least one player above him. James has finished second, third and third in the MVP race the past three years, even though he has led his team to six straight NBA Finals and three championships while clearly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the league.
James' Cleveland Cavaliers once again sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference but there is virtually no chance that James will win the MVP award this season. The media voters prefer to create and then validate a narrative. Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry each won at least one MVP because the media determined that in a particular season or seasons those players represented the league's most compelling narrative.
This season is providing narrative overdrive but two narratives have gathered the most attention; you could call those narratives "Angry Russ" and "Revenge of the Beard."
I have already explained why I would select Russell Westbrook as the 2016-17 NBA MVP. I rank James second this season but not because I have been seduced by a narrative or because I am tired of picking the same player (which is a stupid reason to not vote for a worthy candidate); I acknowledge that James is a better all-around player than Westbrook but that gap has closed, Westbrook is having a historic season and Westbrook plays hard every game while James often enters self-described "chill mode." I would take James in "chill mode" as the MVP in most seasons but not when Westbrook is making triple doubles look effortless.
The "Angry Russ" MVP narrative received a lot of play early in the season. That narrative stipulates that Westbrook is angry at the world because Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. "Angry Russ" will therefore exact revenge on the entire league.
Westbrook cannot be a media darling for the long haul, though. He is too intense, too competitive and too dismissive of stupid questions asked by media members. Westbrook is singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder--a team so bereft of talent and depth that they literally need for Westbrook to put up 30-10-10 every night just to have a chance to win--but instead of acknowledging that reality, the media nitpick Westbrook's shot selection and decision making.
Thus, a new narrative is gaining popularity: "Revenge of the Beard." We all saw James Harden spend last season not playing defense, getting two coaches fired and running his most talented teammate out of town. No one made up any of that. It all happened--but because the Rockets are enjoying early season success in 2016-17, we have a narrative emerging that Harden was somehow disrespected and is now exacting revenge on the league and anyone who dared to question his greatness.
Narratives are inevitably simple and simple-minded, so expect much to be made of the fact that Harden's Houston Rockets won the head to head regular season series versus Westbrook's Thunder two games to one. Never mind that it took Daryl Morey several years to put together a supporting cast that fits with Harden's quirky skill set, while Westbrook's supporting cast contains some mismatched parts and was definitely not built around his skills (Westbrook should be surrounded by shooters and/or by athletic players who can run the floor with him). Never mind that Westbrook is responding to adversity by elevating his game, which is exactly the opposite of the approach that Harden took last year.
Above all, don't expect anyone to point out that Harden actually had a negative plus/minus number in those three head to head games that many media members will likely weigh heavily when casting their MVP votes. The Rockets were outscored by the Thunder when Harden was in the game; they beat the Thunder based on overall talent and depth, not based on what Harden did (this is reminiscent of the Rockets' fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, when Harden rode the bench during many of the most critical possessions and moments of key games). Harden averaged 20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 12.3 apg in the three games versus the Thunder this season, while
shooting .291 from the field, .217 from three point range and .793 from the free throw line.
What about the way that Harden recently led the Rockets to 19 wins in a 21 game stretch? Did you know that during those games the Rockets performed better with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court? I have to admit that Morey has put together a better team top to bottom than I thought--at least in terms of regular season play. I expected Harden to put up astronomical individual numbers in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system but I did not expect the Rockets to win as many games as they have thus far. D'Antoni has the Rockets running and gunning from all angles, which is the last thing that an opposing team wants to deal with while playing a fourth game in five nights, but we all know what happens when a good team with at least one day of rest between games and a chance to prepare for "seven seconds or less" faces D'Antoni's squads in the playoffs.
By the way, Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in those three head to head matchups with Harden. Westbrook averaged 35.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg versus Houston, while shooting .418 from the field, .385 from three point range and .882 from the free throw line. When Westbrook and Harden were on the court, Westbrook put up better numbers than Harden and Westbrook's team had the advantage--but those games will cost Westbrook in the MVP race because Houston's second unit is better than Oklahoma City's and the simple/simple-minded narrative is "Harden trusted his teammates and won; Westbrook played 'hero ball' and lost." Splice that narrative together with a video of a couple highlights cherry-picked to "prove" that Westbrook committed some basketball sins and you have what it takes to be an esteemed member of the basketball media.
So how should these players be compared? The same way that any players should be compared--objectively evaluate their skill sets:
Scoring: Harden is a better three point shooter than Westbrook but Westbrook is quicker, more athletic and more dangerous from more areas of the court. Every year in the playoffs, we see the defensive game plan that works against Harden: force him right, deny him wide open three point shots and when he gets into the lane meet him with high hands while sidestepping his flopping/flailing attempts to draw fouls. The game plan against Westbrook is concede the three point shot, pray that he settles for it and pray really hard that he does not make it, because when Westbrook is making that shot he is completely unguardable.
Rebounding: They are both excellent rebounders for their position but Westbrook has the edge in this department. Harden's rebounding numbers this season are a little inflated based on Houston's pace of play (his offensive rebound rate has nearly doubled, because Houston shoots so many long shots and long shots typically result in long rebounds that can be snared by guards). Westbrook attacks the boards like a shark smelling blood and he would be a terrific rebounder in any system and any era.
Passing: Harden averages more assists than Westbrook but Harden plays in a system that breeds assists for the primary ballhandler and he plays alongside better shooters. Westbrook can make any pass that Harden can make. If Westbrook and Harden traded places then Westbrook would easily match or exceed Harden's assist numbers but Harden's assist numbers would drop.
Ballhandling: Westbrook is explosive, while Harden is crafty (and a bit quicker than he looks at first glance). Both players have high turnover rates: Westbrook tries to do too much at times, while Harden is often shockingly careless with the ball.
Defense: Harden's defensive shortcomings are obvious and notorious. Westbrook is not an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but he plays with much more passion and energy at that end of the court than Harden does. You could put Westbrook on the opposing team's best perimeter player for a few key possessions and expect good results; no one would dream of doing likewise with Harden.
Attitude/Leadership: Harden talked his way out of one city, he ran two coaches out of Houston and in four full seasons as the top player in Houston he has exited the playoffs in the first round three times. His supporters will say that he has emerged as a leader this season; I say let's wait and see until Houston faces some adversity, because that is when we will find out if Harden is a leader or a front runner. Westbrook plays hard and he inspires his teammates to play hard as well. Westbrook has been a top level performer for a team that advanced to at least the Western Conference Finals four times in six years (and likely would have made it even more often were it not for injuries that he and Kevin Durant suffered during that time). Poor leaders do not take their teams to the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four on a nearly annual basis.
Some might say that playoff success--whether past, present or projected in the future--has nothing to do with being the regular season MVP but I disagree; if a player has a pattern of putting up gaudy regular season numbers that are rarely if ever validated by postseason performance (individually and/or collectively) then the MVP voters should take that into account. Not every 25-30 ppg season is created equally; Michael Adams was a very good NBA player but his 26.5 ppg in 1990-91 while playing for Paul Westhead is not equivalent in impact to the 24.7 ppg that Stephen Curry is averaging this season.
Overall: Harden is an unorthodox but effective scorer and playmaker. He is bigger than Westbrook and he rebounds like a small forward. He has little to no interest in playing defense. Westbrook is perhaps the most explosive athlete in the NBA and one of the most explosive, powerful athletes to ever play point guard. Westbrook has demonstrated that he can thrive as the first or second option for a playoff bound team, while Harden chafed at being the Thunder's third option but has yet to prove that he is capable of consistently leading a team very far as the first option. If Harden leads the Rockets to 55-60 wins and homecourt advantage in the first round this season then he will have no excuses if he suffers his typical early postseason exit.
Harden is having a career year in a system designed to inflate the statistics of the team's primary ballhandler but Westbrook is having a historic season while surrounded by a supporting cast that is almost helpless when he is not in the game. Even if one would say that Harden and Westbrook are equal as scorers/playmakers--and I would dispute that notion--Westbrook has a clear edge as a rebounder, defender and leader.
The 2016-17 NBA season is approaching the halfway mark, so this is a good time to separate basketball hype from basketball reality. The premise of this article is not meant to suggest or imply that my predictions are always correct; Minnesota is much worse than I expected, while Houston is better than I expected. Every season has its surprise teams, both good and bad--but some teams are hyped up by consensus for no objectively correct reason.
Basketball Hype: The Indiana Pacers will be a top four team in the East.
Basketball Reality: The Pacers are struggling to stay above .500 in a weak conference.
I predicted that the Pacers would "decline a bit" from last season's 45 wins and thus not make the playoffs. The Pacers' current .500 winning percentage is what I expected, though the Pacers
might sneak into the playoffs because the bottom has dropped out of the
I was baffled that so many people thought that the Pacers would not only be a playoff team but might even challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers fired a good, defensive-minded coach (Frank Vogel) and they sacrificed defense/rim protection to put together a small ball roster that does not suit the natural inclinations of new coach Nate McMillan. The roster construction does not make much sense; there is not enough firepower to just outscore the opposition nor do the Pacers have a lineup that is willing and able to play elite level defense. All of this just screams "mediocrity"--and that is exactly what has transpired.
Basketball Hype: Kobe Bryant held back the progress of the Lakers' young players but with Bryant now retired the Lakers will be a much better team.
Basketball Reality: The Lakers' young players were not ready for prime time last season and they still are not ready for prime time this season.
The media bashed Kobe Bryant when he was averaging 35 ppg and carrying the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the playoffs, so it was obvious and inevitable that the media would kill Bryant when his skills declined. He was blamed for his big contract, as if he forced the Lakers to sign him. He was blamed for shooting too much, for supposedly not playing defense, blah, blah, blah. Well, Bryant is enjoying retirement now and those Lakers that he was supposedly holding back rank last in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, last in points allowed, last in steals, last in turnovers committed and 19th in field goal percentage. Their defense is horrible and their offense is not much better, though the latter deficiency is superficially disguised by playing at a fast pace and chasing down a lot of their missed shots (the Lakers are second in the league in offensive rebounding).
The way that Bryant prepared mentally and physically for each game--despite the challenges of age and multiple injuries--provided a great example for his young teammates to emulate. It is too bad that they did not pay more attention.
Basketball Hype: Kristaps Porzingis is the next Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony is an elite player, so the additions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combined with upgraded coaching from Jeff Hornacek will revitalize the Knicks.
Basketball Reality: Jeff Van Gundy picked this team to win 45-50 games and said that a win total in the "low 50s" is not out of the question. I respect Van Gundy but I don't always agree with him. His prediction for the Knicks was, to be charitable, very optimistic. If everything breaks just right--which almost never happens--the Knicks could win 45 games but 50 or "low 50s" is a pipe dream. Porzingis is a very talented young player but he is not ready to carry a team yet. Anthony was overrated in his prime and he is certainly not an elite player now. Rose is playing well but he is not even close to his pre-injury MVP caliber form. Noah's individual numbers are nothing to write home about, though the team performs much better when he is on the court than it does when he sits.
The Knicks have been overly hyped for years; the fans and the media blamed Isiah Thomas for every problem under the sun and then became oddly silent when the team remained bad to mediocre (with the exception of a brief glimmer of hope when Mike Woodson was the coach) for years after Thomas' departure. Owner James Dolan is the real problem and until he either sells the team or changes his management style the results are not going to change.
Lue hit James with specific critiques that had nothing to do with statistics: "LeBron, what's wrong with your body language? Your body language is terrible. You got to guard Draymond. You got to take the open shot. Quit turning
the ball over. Fix your body language. Anything else you want me to tell
Too many people have become so enamored with statistics--particularly "advanced" statistics--that they fail to understand what basketball greatness really is. It is possible to put up big numbers but not be playing great basketball, which is why Lue lit into James. It is possible to score four points on 1-9 field goal shooting and be the best player on the court (Scottie Pippen versus the Indiana Pacers in game one of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals). Bill Russell used to give the equivalent of doctoral dissertations on basketball when he served as a color commentator during CBS' NBA telecasts. One time during an NBA Finals matchup between the 76ers and the Lakers, he and Dick Stockton talked about how Julius Erving's greatness was not just defined by gaudy numbers but also by the timing of Erving's plays. Attitude, impact, focus--those traits define basketball greatness.
That man was the best. He was the
easiest superstar you could possibly coach. He had more talent at that
stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told
this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe
that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do
everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when
they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best
playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one
individual have. Beyond that, so easy to coach, total gentleman, great
guy. He's the best. He treated everybody the way that a player should
treat everybody--his teammates, the media, the other players, the fans.
He's the best superstar to be around that I've ever been around.
"Easy to coach" is a key phrase in that quote. Erving was "easy to coach" because great players want and need to be coached. Look at the relationship that Tim Duncan had with Gregg Popovich. No one was going to act a fool on that team during the Duncan era because Duncan accepted Popovich's coaching. The same thing is true in the NFL with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
In his book The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Doug Collins was reluctant to criticize Michael Jordan when Collins was the Chicago Bulls' coach. Phil Jackson, one of Collins' assistant coaches at that time, took it upon himself to chastise Jordan when Jordan did not play the right way. Before long, Jackson was the Bulls' head coach and the Bulls eventually won six championships. Collins was a very good NBA coach but in that particular situation he did not challenge Jordan the way that Jordan wanted and needed to be challenged.
Jackson later challenged both Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, lifting a previously underachieving team to three straight championships. Jackson then left the Lakers before coming back to win two more titles with Bryant and Pau Gasol as the best players. I remember a film clip of a Lakers' practice during which Gasol said "It's hard" after Jackson gave him some instructions about how to execute a particular sequence and Jackson barked back, "It's supposed to be hard!" Jackson would not accept excuses. It is worth noting that great players do not make excuses for themselves or accept excuses from their teammates; Jordan and Bryant exemplify that trait.
We live in an era during which basketball is supposedly being revolutionized by "analytics," but regardless of how you manipulate the numbers the realities of human psychology and athletic competition are immutable. You cannot win with losers, no matter how talented those players might be. You can win some games, you might even win a playoff series here or there, but in the long run a team built around a loser is always going to fall short.
George Karl's autobiography Furious George will be on sale to the public in January 2017 but I just received my review copy. Here is what Karl wrote about Carmelo Anthony: "My ideal--probably every coach's ideal--is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn't lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense and compensating for his attitude" (pp. 191-192, Furious George).
The Nuggets eventually traded Anthony and Karl concluded, "...getting rid of Carmelo Anthony was a sweet release for the coach and the team, like popping a blister. I don't automatically hate a superstar, but he's got to buy in, he's got to play defense, and he's got to share the ball. And if his teammates don't like him and if he doesn't help you win a championship...what good is he, except as bait?" (pp. 214-215, Furious George)
The Nuggets had the best regular season record in their NBA history
after trading Anthony but they have been a sub-.500 team since getting
rid of Karl and Masai Ujiri, the general manager who wisely traded
Anthony and has now built the Toronto Raptors into a contender.
Anthony is the anti-Kobe Bryant. It is highly unlikely that Anthony could ever be the best player on an NBA championship team, because he does not accept coaching and he does not understand the importance of attitude, impact and focus. Anthony's attitude is "I got my 25 points, so it's not my fault we lost."
James is fascinating, because he is as perplexing and confounding as any truly great player in pro basketball history. There is no question that he has quit during some of the most important games/series of his career, but he has also been the best player on three championship teams while authoring some of the most sensational performances in NBA Finals history. He needs to be coached but does he always want to be coached? James is not wired like Jordan or Bryant but he is a champion in a way that Anthony never will be.
"Stat gurus" often minimize and mock the importance of coaching but Tyronn Lue's direct approach with LeBron James is just the latest example of how much impact a coach can have when he delivers the right message at the right time to a superstar who is receptive to that message.
Handicapping the MVP Race Just Past the Quarter Pole of the 2016-17 NBA Season
The NBA All-Star ballots will be officially released on Sunday and the NBA season is nearly one third over, so it is not too early to at least take a preliminary look at the MVP race. Historically, when I write about the MVP race--or the NBA awards in general--I only discuss who I think should win and why. For example, this article describes who I felt should win the various NBA awards for the 2011-12 (it also includes links to several of my articles about the NBA awards from previous seasons). For this article, though, I am taking a different approach: I will list the top five players in my MVP rankings and I will also list who I believe would be the top five finishers if the media voters filled out their ballots today.
My philosophy about the MVP award remains unchanged; the MVP should be the best all-around player in the league, unless there is a player who is so singularly dominant in one or two phases of the game that this dominance makes him more valuable than the league's best all-around player at that time. So, Shaquille O'Neal should have won several MVPs (instead of just one) even though he was never the best all-around player in the league; his dominance in the paint made him more valuable than anyone else during his prime.
Also, in most years my MVP choice will play for team with a winning record but I would
not rule out a player from a lesser squad if his individual play is
exceptional and his supporting cast is clearly extremely deficient.
Westbrook is not only having an MVP caliber season; he is having a historically great season. Some of Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines this season defy description or belief: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. He recently posted a 26-11-22 stat line, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1988 to have a triple double that included at least 25 points and at least 20 assists.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Westbrook's season is the way that Westbrook is single-handedly keeping his Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoff picture. When Westbrook is on the court, the Thunder are one of the league's top eight teams in point differential--but when he is out of the game, the Thunder are the worst team in the league! I am not sure if Westbrook's supporting cast is worse than anyone thought or just is not yet fully performing up to par but it is clear that Westbrook has less help than any other elite player in the NBA whose squad is in playoff contention. It is worth noting that Westbrook is also the only such elite player whose roster is not built around his skill set. The Thunder were built around Kevin Durant, who fled to Golden State; a team built around Westbrook would feature more shooters to spread the floor and also more athletes who could run with Westbrook in the transition game.
What Westbrook is doing this season is a heightened version of what Pete Maravich and Tracy McGrady did during their respective primes: he is playing at such a high level that when he is on the court an ordinary roster looks very good but when he is not on the court that same roster looks like an expansion team. Maravich, McGrady and Westbrook have very different physiques and skill sets but they each merited MVP consideration during their primes based on the way that their individual brilliance shined in a team context.
2) Lebron James
The case for James is that he is the best all-around player in the NBA and he is putting up MVP-level numbers across the board, including a career-high 9.0 apg. The case against James is that he sometimes enters "chill mode" (as he once called it) by either physically sitting out a game or by mentally sitting out, so consequently his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers only have the third best record in the league. In most years, I would probably rank James first, anyway--but not during a season when Westbrook is putting up historically great numbers while never sitting out physically or mentally.
3) Kevin Durant
Durant is the best player on the best team in the league. In many years, that is a pretty reliable MVP formula--but I cannot place him ahead of James (who is a better defender and passer) or the incomparable Westbrook.
4) Stephen Curry
The back to back reigning MVP is having another great season but no one could seriously argue that he is playing better than his teammate Durant and it is self-evident that you cannot be the league MVP if you are not the best player on your own team.
5) Kawhi Leonard
Leonard has had perhaps the most bizarre career arc of any serious MVP candidate ever. He owns a Finals MVP, he has won the Defensive Player of the Year award the last two seasons and he finished second in MVP voting in 2015-16 but he has only made the All-Star team once. This season, he is clearly the best player on a San Antonio team that has the second best record in the NBA and his two-way brilliance earns him the fifth spot on my MVP list.
The media voting for MVP has produced some odd results. Shaquille O'Neal--the most dominant player of his era--only received one MVP and the year that he won it one voter did not pick O'Neal just to prove some kind of bizarre point, thus depriving O'Neal of the opportunity to become the first unanimous winner (Curry earned that distinction last season, beating out LeBron James before succumbing to him in the Finals). Kobe Bryant, the best all-around player in the NBA for several years, also won just one MVP. Meanwhile, Steve Nash won two MVPs, Derrick Rose won an MVP and Karl Malone and Charles Barkley each won MVPs before losing to Michael Jordan in the Finals in those respective seasons. The media supposedly gets "tired" of voting for the same player (or else Jordan would have won several more MVPs) and the media also likes to latch on to certain kinds of narratives, such as the underdog or the quirky and/or outrageous guy. LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time, he is in or near his prime and he has not won the regular season MVP since 2012-13. Last season, James finished third in the regular season MVP race
before leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise's first title by
capping off a Finals MVP performance with a game seven triple double. Unless something changes, James will probably slip to fourth in the media's regular season MVP voting in 2016-17. I doubt that the media will ever vote him as MVP again.
Here is how I think the media MVP voting would go today:
1) Russell Westbrook
This is one season when at least one of the the hyped narratives is actually worth hyping. The media pumped out stories about "angry Russ" as soon as Durant left the Thunder. Westbrook's 2016-17 story was already written before the season even began: if he played well, then that proved that "angry Russ" had properly channeled his feelings but he if played poorly then that proved that he lacked self-control and was not worthy of the status he assumed in Oklahoma City after Durant's departure. There will be no nuances in the coverage of Westbrook this season. He is a hero now but rest assured that the goat stories have already been written as well and those stories will be published if the Thunder lose too many games, regardless of how well Westbrook plays.
2) James Harden
The media loves "the Beard." He has a nickname, he does some kind of stir the pot antic after he scores, he is involved with a Kardashian--bottom line, he makes life easy for media members. So what if he lacks leadership qualities, plays no defense and will run out of town anyone who expects him to play defense. Harden is a very talented offensive player; there is no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that Mike D'Antoni's system inflates a point guard's touches and numbers. If the media evaluated players on a skill set basis, Harden could never rank ahead of the five players on my MVP ballot--but he will almost certainly finish second in the MVP voting this season (unless there is a late push to turn Westbrook into a goat and hand the honor to Harden instead).
3) Kevin Durant
As mentioned above, Durant is the best player on the best team. Many MVP voters use that as their number one criteria, so Durant figures to finish no lower than third.
4) LeBron James
By merit James should finish no lower than second but I expect that the voters will place him fourth, for the faulty reasons I have already discussed.
5) Chris Paul
Paul finished sixth in the MVP voting last season. I think that the voters will move him past Curry this year. There are a lot of stories floating around about how this is shaping up to be the Clippers' year or at least the last chance for this group to win a title together. Many media members tried to give Paul the MVP over Bryant when Bryant was in his absolute prime, so if the Clippers make a run at 60 wins then Paul will receive a lot of support for MVP. I respect Paul's grit, toughness and court vision but we have already seen that he is too small (and perhaps too stubborn in terms of how he plays) to lead a team to a title. By rights he should be no higher than 10th in the MVP race but I think that he has a great chance of cracking the top five. If the Clippers win 60 games and finish second in the West standings to the Warriors then Paul could even move into the top three.
The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot, Part II
Charles Barkley recently made some very derogatory comments about the Golden State Warriors and he reiterated his contention that jump-shooting teams are not built to win championships. As the father of a wonderful young daughter, I echo Rachel Nichols' eloquent statement that "girlie" or "girl" should never be used as a synonym for, as she put it, something that is "weak" or "lame."
Moving past Barkley's ill-advised method of delivering his message, is there any truth to Barkley's assertion about jump-shooting teams purely from the standpoint of strategically analyzing basketball? I have discussed this subject a number of times in a variety of contexts. For instance, I wrote The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot for NBCSports.com nearly 10 years ago and then a few months after publication (during which time NBCSports.com was torn down and then rebuilt without maintaining links to prior content) I updated the article and posted it at 20 Second Timeout.
To best understand my take on the strengths and limitations of the three point shot as a basketball weapon, it would be helpful to provide some historical background, both in terms of the sport of basketball in general and also in terms of how my involvement in the sport as a recreational player informed my perspective about the three point shot.
Let's start with "advanced basketball statistics." Newer visitors to 20 Second Timeout--and perhaps even some of my veteran readers--may wonder why I refer to high profile advocates of "advanced basketball statistics" as "stat gurus." I borrowed that phrase from a line that Mike Lupica delivered a few times many years ago on the "Sports Reporters"; he would refer to someone who is supposed to be an expert at something as a "guru" and then he would say, "It is time for the guru to start 'guruing.'" I no longer recall who specifically Lupica was talking about but that wry sense of "OK, smart guy, it's about time that you actually prove that you know what you are doing" perfectly captures how I feel about many of the pompous analytics acolytes who act like they know more about basketball than people who have been playing and/or coaching the sport at the highest level for decades. Is there some value in trying to analyze the sport objectively? Of course there is but there should be a sense of humility and an understanding that the numbers don't capture everything about a sport that is played (and coached and officiated) by human beings, not robots.
Dean Oliver and Dan Rosenbaum are two of a handful of people whose basketball statistical work I respect--but far too many "stat gurus" are less concerned with objective truth than they are with making a name for themselves by proving that their pet theories are some kind of basketball gospel. Those self-serving, self-interested and self-satisfied "stat gurus" have had a pernicious effect on the way that the game is played, analyzed and discussed. Those "stat gurus" act like no one effectively utilized basketball statistics until they came along. I've got news for them: Dean Smith was using plus/minus back in the 1970s, if not earlier; Hubie Brown was hired by the Kentucky Colonels--who he led to the 1975 ABA title--because he impressed team management with his intricate understanding of basketball statistics and how those statistics can be used as tools to build a winning team.
"Advanced basketball statistics" are only as meaningful and relevant as (1) the box score numbers upon which they are based and (2) the accuracy of the formulas that are used to slice and dice those box score numbers. I have already demonstrated that assist statistics cannot be fully trusted, which means that any "advanced" formula that places a high value on assists will artificially inflate the value of players who accumulate many assists. There is good reason to question the accuracy/reliability of other box score numbers as well: subjectivity impacts the scoring of rebounds, steals, blocked shots and turnovers.
Hall of Famer/Top 50 player Rick Barry once told me that the only statistic he completely trusted was free throw percentage. Perhaps that seems self-serving of Barry because he owns one of the best career free throw percentages in pro basketball history but his point is that a player can inflate his field goal percentage by only shooting easy shots, rebounds can be padded by tips/taps that are not consistently recorded the same way and so forth. Then there is the reality--acknowledged by Rosenbaum but glossed over by many "stat gurus"--that "advanced basketball statistics" do not accurately measure individual defense. It should be obvious that subjective--but critically important--factors such as leadership, attitude and willingness/ability to play through injuries cannot be measured analytically at all. This is why I roll my eyes when a "stat guru" confidently declares that he can accurately rank every player in the NBA to the second decimal point of his proprietary "advance basketball statistic."
Many "stat gurus" assert that post play and the midrange game are inefficient, while the most efficient basketball shots are three pointers and free throws. The three point shot has evolved from a late game situational shot to a supplementary weapon to the mainstay of many teams' offenses. It should be remembered that even before "advanced basketball statistics" gained widespread influence, teams like the 1990s Houston Rockets and 1990s Orlando Magic utilized a "1 in, 4 out" offense featuring a dominant center surrounded by three point marksmen who punished opponents for double teaming the post. At that time, the three point shot was used to open up the game for the dominant post player but that dominant post player was still the focal
Teams that are run by--or at least influenced by--"stat gurus" deemphasize the value of the traditional big man in
favor of deploying small lineups, shooting a lot of three pointers and (ideally) drawing a lot of fouls (typically via dribble penetration).
As for my personal involvement in the sport as a player, I have played rec league basketball since I was a kid in the 1970s. The strong suit of my game was always my jump shot (which really is not a traditional jump shot but some hybrid of Michael Cooper's set shot and Larry Bird's two hands behind his head delivery) but I spent my formative years playing without the three point shot. In 1987-88, the 19-9 three point shot was introduced into high school and college basketball. That wonderful arc soon appeared on the courts where I played both pickup ball and rec league ball. In the pickup games, we played to 12 by ones and twos. Under that scoring system, a good three point shooter is more valuable than a good post player; if I made even just 3 of 10 three pointers I scored six points, which is half the amount needed to win the game and a total that a post player could only match by shooting 60% from the field.
I really enjoyed playing 1 on 1 to 12 under that scoring system; I could hit six threes and take out a bigger, stronger opponent who was trying to wear me down one point at a time.
Of course, in league play when threes were not worth twice as much as twos, the math was not quite as favorable for a three point shooter but I did often mention to skeptical teammates that if I could make just one
third of my three pointers I was as efficient as a post player who was
making half of his shots in the paint. I was often the youngest
participant in these games and the older guys who disdained long jumpers
(and did not bother to do the simple math) got on my case for shooting
so many three pointers. I told them rather bluntly that unless they were
shooting 50% in the paint, then my three pointer was a higher
percentage shot if I was connecting 33% of the time (and I probably was
shooting closer to 40%), without even taking into account that the offensive team was more likely to rebound a long jumper than a
missed shot in the paint. In addition, team defense is poorly organized in most rec leagues, so a smart and patient team can easily obtain wide open three point shots, particularly if the league does not use a shot clock.
So, from a young age I understood that in short games scored by ones and twos and in rec league games where post play was erratic and team defense was disorganized the three point shot was a very potent weapon.
Similarly, in the 40 minute college game featuring a short season followed by a one and done playoff system, it is possible to have a lot of success by constructing a good three point shooting team with well conditioned athletes who could beat the defense up and down the floor. Such teams generally play at a fast pace and thrive on shooting three pointers in transition. Rick Pitino has had success with this approach at multiple NCAA Division I schools and Paul Westhead enjoyed success both in NCAA Division I basketball and in the WNBA, where he led the Phoenix Mercury to the 2007 title. Westhead is the only coach to win a championship in both the WNBA and the NBA (1980 L.A. Lakers), though ironically Magic Johnson ran Westhead out of L.A. because Johnson felt that Westhead's offense at that time was too slow and methodical. However, NBA basketball consists of an 82 game regular season followed by four rounds of best of seven playoff series. Each regulation game lasts 48 minutes, not 40. Strategies that work in the college game are not necessarily applicable to the NBA game.
What does all of this have to do with Charles Barkley's comment about jump shooting teams? The NBA does not keep score by ones and twos and NBA defense is infinitely better than rec league defense. The notion that you can win big in the NBA just by shooting a large number of three pointers may make mathematical sense but it does not make real world sense. In that regard, there is some truth to what Barkley said. Take, for example, the Houston Rockets, who are now coached by Mike D'Antoni, whose Phoenix teams led the NBA in three point field goals made for three consecutive seasons (2005-07). The Rockets have a potent offense and are on pace to shatter many three point shooting records but they rank 22nd in defensive field goal percentage after finishing 19th in that category (under Kevin McHale and J.B. Bickerstaff) last season. That is a recipe for elimination early in the playoffs.
The nuance that Barkley is missing when he singles out the Warriors is that the Warriors differentiated themselves from other three-point happy teams (such as D'Antoni's Suns and Rockets) by playing organized, intense and effective defense. In their 2015 championship season, the Warriors led the league in defensive field goal percentage; they ranked third in that category last season and they currently rank second this season despite the loss of Andrew Bogut's rim protection.
Championship teams typically rank in the top five or 10 in defensive field goal percentage. The 2000-02 Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are an interesting example. The Lakers led the league in defensive field goal percentage in 2000 and in 2002. In 2001 they slipped to 11th but still won the title. What happened? Unlike Bryant, O'Neal did not always fully exert himself during the regular season--but O'Neal was capable of playing championship level defense when he felt like it and after coasting through the 2001 regular season he ramped up his effort during the 2001 playoffs, when the Lakers ranked second in defensive field goal percentage. O'Neal decided to "heal on company time" during the 2002-03 season as the Lakers plummeted to 21st in defensive field goal percentage and this time O'Neal was not willing or able to turn it up in the playoffs: the Lakers ranked 15th out of 16 playoff teams in defensive field goal percentage and they lost in the second round to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, who ranked second in defensive field goal percentage during the 2003 playoffs and during the 2003 regular season.
In other words, instead of continually bashing the Warriors, Barkley should focus his attention on the Rockets: that is the jump shooting team that will never win a championship (as opposed to the Warriors, a jump shooting team that plays defense and has already won a championship).
There is an important point implied but not explicitly mentioned in Barkley's statement: the three point shot is a high variance shot, as I discussed in The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: A New 20 Second Timeout Feature, noting that three point field goal percentage can be a misleading statistic: if a player shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 from three point range in the next playoff game that works out to a very good .389 3FG% but his team will likely lose the second game (and may not win the first game, either, if the team is deficient defensively and/or on the boards). In that article, I argued that Gilbert Arenas' three point field goal percentage did not justify his style of play and that a team was not likely to have much playoff success when led by a point guard who is indifferent defensively and who has poor shot selection--even if his overall shooting percentage is not bad, the high variance inherent in shooting a lot of shots from three point range (many of which were bad shots, even if they sometimes connected) is a recipe for disaster for that point guard and his team.
James Harden is similar to Arenas in many ways, though Harden is a better and more consistent player than Arenas was. My prediction for a Harden-led team is the same as my accurate prediction regarding an Arenas-led team: I would be surprised if such a team advances past the second round of the playoffs.
The Rockets' organization has been led for nearly a decade by Daryl Morey, who has been widely praised in the mainstream media as a visionary despite the fact that during his first eight years in Houston the Rockets missed the playoffs three times and only won three playoff series. Last season, the Rockets barely qualified for the playoffs but instead of revising their offense happy/defense optional approach Morey doubled down by hiring D'Antoni. The Rockets might win 50 games this season, as some of D'Antoni's Phoenix teams did. Harden might win the MVP over more deserving players, as D'Antoni's Phoenix point guard Steve Nash did twice. However, it will be surprising if the Rockets advance very far in the playoffs, barring a defensive turnaround similar to the 2001 Lakers (which is highly improbable, to say the least).
Successful NBA teams have judiciously incorporated "advanced basketball statistics" into their programs but teams (like Houston) that have gone all in have not reached the highest level. This is a valid point that Barkley could (and should) make during TNT telecasts.
The Philadelphia 76ers are the poster children for a "stat guru" run amuck or, as I put it a couple years ago, The 76ers Are the Waterloo for "Stat Gurus." Sam Hinkie, a protege of Morey's, instituted an infamous "process" in Philadelphia that came close to ruining a once storied franchise. Hinkie's media buddies still try to paint him as some kind of visionary but he actually is the 21st century Ted Stepien with a much better sense of public relations. In the early 1980s, Ted Stepien tore down the Cleveland Cavaliers to the point that the league had to essentially wrest control of the franchise from him, which is what happened (in a more subtle way) to Hinkie as well. It took Wayne Embry years to undo the damage that Stepien did and by the time Embry turned the Cavaliers into contenders there were no traces left of Stepien's handiwork; it will similarly take years for Bryan Colangelo to salvage the 76ers and by the time they become good again Hinkie's "process" will be a distant, dark memory.
Since the "process" began, the 76ers have never had a winning percentage above .250 and, despite some recent misguided media hype about Hinkie being vindicated, they are currently 5-18 (.217 winning percentage).
One of the many aspects of pro sports that Hinkie fails to understand is that a loser's mentality is contagious and must be purged from an organization if that organization is going to enjoy any success. You cannot turn your franchise into a perennial loser, stockpile some talent and then suddenly become a championship team; the Cleveland Browns' front office has been infiltrated with Hinkie-like thinking and they have turned the Browns into a de facto expansion team on par with the ultimate NFL laughingstock, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When Mike Ditka was hired as the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 1982, he told his players that he had good news and bad news: the good news was that the Bears would win the Super Bowl within three years but the bad news was that many of them would no longer be on the team by that time. Both predictions came true. No "advanced basketball statistic" blueprint takes the place of a basic understanding of how to build a team that has a championship mindset and championship habits, two traits that are missing in both Houston and Philadelphia.
So, there is some truth to what Barkley said but--because he failed to articulate his message clearly and because he used some unfortunate language that overshadowed his larger point--it is easy to dismiss him as an old school curmudgeon. It is true that teams that rely on jump shooting and do not play excellent defense will not win a championship--but it is not correct to lump the Warriors into a category that should be headlined by the Rockets.
On Monday night, Klay Thompson erupted for 60 points in just 29 minutes as his Golden State Warriors routed the Indiana Pacers, 142-106. Thompson, who shot 21-33 from the field (including 8-14 from three point range), set an NBA record for most points scored while playing fewer than 30 minutes (previously, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone had each needed 33 minutes to score at least 60 points). Thompson did not play at all in the fourth quarter or else he might have challenged Kobe Bryant's pro basketball record for most points scored by a guard in a single game (81)--but it is worth noting that Bryant once outscored Dallas 62-61 after three quarters before sitting out the entire fourth quarter (that Dallas team finished 60-22 and advanced to the NBA Finals); also, in 2002, Bryant scored a then career-high 56 points in three quarters versus Memphis before sitting out the entire fourth quarter because the Lakers led 95-59. During his career, Bryant scored at least 50 points in the first three quarters of a game no less than five times!
The media coverage of Thompson's superb game is interesting. The New York Times neglected to mention Thompson's assist total (1)--a number that was invariably brought up whenever Bryant had a big scoring night--but did snarkily comment that the most recent 60 point game in the NBA happened last season when Bryant was "abetted by his teammates," which makes it sound like Bryant and/or the Lakers committed some kind of basketball crime. Did Thompson's teammates not "abet" him? The reality is that assists were awarded on 20 of 21 Thompson's made field goals. While field goal attempts might be harder to come by when you have talented teammates like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, the flip side of that is that Thompson is not likely to draw many double teams, either, regardless of how hot he gets. In any case, despite the sniping about Bryant's valedictory effort it will be interesting to see how many years pass before another NBA player with a repaired Achilles tendon drops 60 points in his final NBA game while playing alongside a bunch of young teammates, many of whom are not worthy of single coverage let alone double coverage.
In general, most players who have a 60 point game only do so once, so even though Thompson is an explosive scorer he likely will never match what he just accomplished. Wilt Chamberlain holds the NBA record for most 60 point games in a career (32), while Bryant is second with six, Michael Jordan is third with five (four in the regular season plus one in the playoffs) and Elgin Baylor is fourth with four (three in the regular season plus one in the playoffs). No one else has done it more than once; the other 60 point scorers include David Thompson (73), David Robinson (71), Pete Maravich (68), Rick Barry (64), George Gervin (63), Joe Fulks (63), Carmelo Anthony (62), Tracy McGrady (62), LeBron James (61), Shaquille O'Neal (61), Karl Malone (61) and George Mikan (61), plus several players who scored exactly 60 one time (Gilbert Arenas, Allen Iverson, Tom Chambers, Larry Bird and Bernard King). Julius Erving's ABA single game career-high was 63 points, four short of the ABA record of 67 set by Larry Miller. Other ABA players who scored at least 60 points in a game include Stew Johnson (62) and Zelmo Beaty (63).
Other than Stew Johnson (who briefly held the ABA single game scoring record), Thompson is the only player who was the third option on his team to score at least 60 points in a game--and the second option on Johnson's 1971 Pittsburgh Condors, George Thompson, did not play in Johnson's 62 point game, while Durant and Curry both played during Klay Thompson's big game. It is difficult to think of many other teams in pro basketball history that had three scoring options as potent as former scoring champions Curry and Durant plus Thompson, who holds the NBA record with 37 points in one quarter. It is uncommon for a team to have three legit, healthy 20 ppg scorers and it is rare--if not unprecedented--that the third option would realistically be capable of scoring 50 points, let alone 60. Curry and Durant have each scored 50 points in a game on multiple occasions and are certainly capable of scoring 60 in a game.
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan